Sports wagering continues to grow in Virginia, topping $1.32 billion through June, with more operators preparing to enter the market.
The Virginia Lottery Board on Wednesday approved draft regulations to govern operations of the state’s future gaming casinos.
Meeting in Richmond in an event livestreamed online, the board unanimously approved proposed permanent regulations for casinos planned in Bristol, Danville, Norfolk and Portsmouth, as well as Richmond, if voters there approve it in a November referendum. The regulations are expected to be finalized in May 2022 and would replace emergency regulations currently in place.
The board also heard more details regarding the timeline to approve casino gaming licenses.
Voters in Bristol, Danville, Norfolk and Portsmouth last November approved the operation of one casino in each city. The lottery is now accepting the license applications from the four designated casino operators, including Hard Rock International, which plans to establish a resort casino and hotel at the former Bristol Mall.
“We’re trying to use a practical rather than a strictly legalistic approach to how we’re getting this program started, how we’re getting things done,” Bob Fontaine, the lottery’s deputy general counsel, told the board. “There are more details for in-person sports betting, and there is more information on local casino gaming that is within the casino itself. Those were very light in the emergency regs, but it’s better to have more meat on that set of regulations.”
Casino regulations have grown from 380 pages to about 500 pages.
Among the changes are the theoretical payout percentage range of slot machines, which was adjusted from 89% to 95% to the industry standard 84% to 100%, Fontaine said.
Many of the differences from the emergency regulations to the draft permanent regulations involve definitions, clarifying terms and other wording changes after getting initial feedback from casino operators and the public, he said.
“Some of these things are, honestly, a reflection of having more time to do a more complete job and responding to the concerns raised during the process. I think it’s just a more clear document,” Fontaine said.
Wednesday’s approval will spark a series of executive branch reviews by the attorney general, the Department of Planning and Budget, the secretary of finance and Gov. Ralph Northam’s office.
The secretary has 14 days, the has department 45 days, and the governor and attorney general have no deadline. Once approved by all parties, the regulations will be published by the Virginia Register, which will trigger a 60-day public comment period on the proposed regulations. That is expected to begin in November and conclude in January.
The Lottery Board is then expected to approve the regulations next January, which would spark another review by the attorney general, the secretary of finance and the new governor, since Northam leaves office in January. Another public comment period would follow next spring, with the casino regulations expected to be finalized next May, according to Lottery Executive Director Kevin Hall.
“Bristol, Danville, Norfolk and Portsmouth are now in a position to begin submitting license applications and all the supporting documentation,” Hall said. “Lottery has up to 12 months to complete the very in-depth licensing investigations, once those submissions are complete.”
That is the same schedule that the lottery has been operating under since last year.
The Bristol casino group has begun filing documents and are now following up with additional filings to include contractors and others that must be vetted, according to a written statement.
“We remain committed to opening the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Bristol as soon as possible,” according to the statement. “We will be ready to move forward as soon as we receive all the required approvals from the Virginia Lottery. We are actively engaged in ongoing local efforts to prepare for opening a resort that will bring thousands of new jobs and millions of dollars in additional tax revenue to Bristol.”
The lottery has hired 22 licensing investigators and retained the services of an “experienced investigative firm.” Hall said.
“We anticipate the timeframe where we are in a position to start awarding casino licenses to be sometime in the summer of next year,” Hall said.
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