More than 40 years ago, debate raged through the halls of the state Capitol in Richmond as, year after year, the General Assembly dealt with bills from legislators on the fringes of power who wanted to create a state lottery in the Old Dominion. And every year, the bills died either in committee or subcommittee.
Gambling, the blue bloods of the commonwealth said, was unseemly, immoral and illegal, best left to the corner numbers man in the not-so-proper neighborhoods. Families would be split asunder when the mortgage money was lost buying scratch-off tickets, opponents argued; there would be an explosion of gambling addiction with women and children the victims.
But by the mid-1980s, lottery proponents had worn down their opposition. The argument that the people themselves should decide whether to establish a lottery in Virginia. The Assembly voted to place the matter on the ballot in November 1987, and it coasted to approval, with strong backing in the urban and suburban areas of the state.
The first scratch-off ticket was sold in September 1988, and since then, more than $11 billion in profits have flowed to state coffers. (As an aside, the 1987 referendum made no mention of where the profits would be directed, though public schools were mentioned as an example. In Fiscal Year 2018, the Virginia Lottery profits totaled $606 million and accounted for about 9 percent of state dollars for public education in the state.)
Not surprisingly, in the 31 years since, the sky hasn’t fallen, much to critics’ disappointment.
Today, legislators in the Assembly are again confronting efforts to expand gaming in Virginia, this time in the form of casino resorts, and the arguments we hear against casinos are almost identical to those made against a lottery four decades ago: They’re dens of iniquity; gambling’s immoral and against the precepts of the Bible; families will be rent asunder by gambling addiction; and it’s the state’s responsibility to protect individuals from their own “bad” choices.
In the 2019 Assembly session, opponents almost killed efforts by three cities — Danville, Bristol and Petersburg — to attract a casino resort. Only last-minute maneuvering by supporters and the governor’s office kept the efforts alive. Legislators passed a bill setting up a study of what regulatory environment would need to be established to legalize casinos in the state, along with a voter referendum in any municipality wishing to do so. Legislators in the 2020 session must pass the identical bill a second time before it becomes law.
But in the meantime, gaming — gambling, whatever you want to call it — is already here in Virginia, and the attitudes of ordinary Virginians toward the industry are undergoing a sea change.
Just take the story of the newly opened Rosie’s Gaming Emporium in Richmond, the subject of an article in The Washington Post earlier this month.
In the same Assembly session when legislators moved ever so slowly toward allowing casinos in Virginia, they also moved full-steam ahead in efforts to revive the state’s horse-racing industry and Colonial Downs racetrack. Part of the package was the authorization of off-track facilities that feature “historic horse racing” machines … not slots, mind you. Each machine accesses a database of more than 90,000 historic horse races, showing the user blind statistics he can use to decide which unnamed horse to wager on. Or you can simply let the machine do all the work and watch the cherries, numbers and other fruit spin around to decide the winner. There are Rosie’s facilities in several other cities, including nearby Roanoke, and they’re all packed with fans.
So what does this tell us about support for the casino resort efforts, especially here in Southside? After all, gaming has been a part of Virginia history almost from the founding of the colony at Jamestown in 1607 — in 1612, a lottery raised more than 12,000 pounds for the settlement’s sponsor, the Virginia Company, and a lottery was also held to raise money to establish the College of William & Mary.
In all of the intervening centuries since, the sky’s not fallen nor has fire and brimstone rained down upon the state or the gambling sinners. The attitude of most Virginians is one rooted in the commonwealth’s history of liberty and individual freedom: Let an individual make choices for himself and keep the state out of his hair.
After all, that’s “The Virginia Way.”