The Virginia budget committee attached a skills game amendment to the state’s budget. And, some opponents are calling the “clairifying” language an underhanded attempt to ban skill games — without input from the General Assembly or the public.
What are skill games and why are they controversial in Virginia?
The slot machine-like games are fairly common in bars, restaurants, convenience stores and truck stops throughout the state.
Skill game opponents in Virginia argue that the machines take business away from new Virginia casinos, charitable gaming, and the Virginia Lottery. Lottery profits go toward the state’s public schools.
Opponents including Senator Steve Newman (R-Lynchburg) believe the machines are bad for the public in general. He serves on the budget committee.
Meanwhile, skill game supporters in Virginia don’t see the problem. While the machines are slot-like, players don’t win by blind luck. The games require some skill just like standard arcade games, in their opinion.
Boyd Melchor, the owner of the Kelly’s Tavern franchise, says these games have allowed many small businesses to stay open amid the pandemic, increasing food costs, and labor shortages.
“The customers love them,” he said. “These skill games are getting a lot of us through.”
Virginia Beach’s Champs Sports Bar and Grill owner Richard Green believes the only opponents are “lobbyists for the casinos and the politicians trying to please them.”
Melchor, however, doesn’t think businesses that house skill games are as big of a threat to casinos as lobbyists claim. “I just don’t think there will be any competition at all,” he added.
Not the first time skill games targeted by Virginia’s General Assembly
The Virginia General Assembly has a variety of opinions when it comes to the benefits and dangers of skill games in small businesses.
Delegate David Bulova (D-Fairfax) actually introduced a bill in 2020 that would have banned the machines completely. After a delay from Gov. Ralph Northam, Senator Bill Stanley filed a lawsuit against the ban.
The court will be reviewing the issue in November.
New budget language breaks “unwritten rule”
Both House Appropriations Committee Chair Barry Knight (R-Virginia Beach, pictured) and Senator Janet Howell (D-Fairfax) have sponsored anti-skill games bills. They led the charge to “clarify” skill game language in this year’s budget bill.
“We are not saying they are outlawed, we’re not saying they’re legal,” Knight explained. “We’re just setting out the definitions. It’s going to court. We’ll let the judge decide.”
The budget bill distinguishes skill games from other entertainment devices. Knight claims the change allows pending litigation to go smoothly:
“I just put definitions in, along with Senator Howell. So, when the case goes forward, we don’t have any gray area as to what a skill game is as opposed to an amusement device.”
Senator Stanley, however, says the added language would actually ban a ton of games. And even some traditional arcade games.
He also says that the budget move broke an “unwritten rule.” Generally, lawmakers in Virginia don’t pass measures that interfere with an ongoing court case.
“I don’t think they really know what they’re doing,” Stanley said.
The budget committee used “backdoor maneuvering” to restrict skill games
For a bill to become law, several legislative committees work on the legislation ahead of a floor vote.
Some lawmakers aren’t happy with the way budget committee members slipped the skill game language in.
Furthermore, the amendments included other measures that may have deserved a vote. This includes language for a new misdemeanor offense for possession of marijuana.
The attachments force lawmakers to swallow the budget amendments with a “yes” vote or put the entire state budget bill at risk with a “no” vote
“What a select few legislators have done here is to force feed to the rest of the membership of the General Assembly a radical change to the criminal code.”
He said the lawmakers didn’t introduce the changes as a stand-alone bill in the regular session.
“They were never debated by any committee, and never fully vetted by both chambers through the regular legislative process,” he added.