Virginia business owners are unplugging skill games as enforcement on ban begins

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Boyd Melkor ripped apart the electronic consoles for skill games at his Virginia Beach facility last week.

Customers enjoyed playing on devices that looked like slot machines, he said. But the city began implementing a long-delayed statewide ban on Sunday games.

Melkor, who owns Kelly’s Tavern, which has several locations in Hampton Roads, said it’s a big blow to small businesses that depend on the financial boost the games provide. The facilities that host the skill games keep 40% of the profit the devices make.

“Let’s put this ban on hold and not enact it until the General Assembly has had a chance to look into this,” he said.

His plea has found some support among lawmakers and other small-business owners who host the devices.

Games of skill are similar to slot machines. But winners don’t just depend on luck; Users need to interact with the game a bit.

The legality of the games in Virginia has changed over the years. After the Supreme Court of Virginia last month, the case seems to have been resolved Order reversed This allowed the games to remain available – despite being banned – pending a lawsuit over the legality of the ban. The Supreme Court ruled the case untenable and a lower court dismissed the case last week.

But several state lawmakers are calling on Gov. Glenn Youngkin to end the enforcement.

The Nov. 7 letter from 11 senators and representatives states that “small businesses in our area are concerned and at risk of being forced to lay off workers or close their doors without the revenue and stability that these games provide.” We ask that the skill games currently in operation be delayed until they can gather clarity.”

The letter was signed by a coalition of lawmakers including Sen. Louise Lucas (D-Portsmouth) and Sen. Bill DeSteff (R-Virginia Beach).

Youngkin declined a request for comment.

Hundreds of small business owners also recently signed an open letter to the General Assembly saying they have been financially challenged over the past few years and asking lawmakers to allow the game.

“As we move forward in the post-pandemic era, it is imperative that our state government and members of the General Assembly support our survival and growth – and that starts with enacting legislation to regulate, tax and enforce games of chance,” the November 14 letter said. States.

Without further action, the ban will be enforced. Victoria LaCivita, a spokeswoman for Attorney General Jason Miares, said last month that the attorney general was “very pleased” the order was overturned.

“The Commonwealth of Virginia has regulated gambling for centuries, and the Games of Skill Act is a mere exercise of the General Assembly’s power to protect the public from dangerous gambling devices,” she wrote in an email.

Those caught operating games of skill can be subject to civil penalties of up to $25,000 per machine. They may also file criminal charges.

Illegal gambling is a Class 3 misdemeanor and carries a fine of up to $500. Possession and operation of illegal gambling devices is a Class 1 misdemeanor punishable by up to 12 months in prison or a fine of up to $2,500, or both. Running an illegal gambling enterprise or operation is a Class 6 felony punishable by up to 12 months in jail and up to $2,500 or up to five years in prison.

It’s unclear how each city or county should proceed when enforcement is left to localities. But last month, a joint news release from Virginia Beach law enforcement — Commonwealth’s Attorney Colin Stoll, City Attorney Mark Stiles and Police Chief Paul Nudigate — indicated their intention to begin enforcement on Sunday.

Mackie Allen, a spokeswoman for Stoll’s office, said the city has not had a specific fight with gambling, but wants to make sure the community is alerted.

“We were just trying to be proactive,” she said.

Meanwhile, Norfolk Commonwealth’s Attorney Ramin Fathi said he believes the General Assembly will choose to include civil penalties handled by city attorneys and include that as a remedy.

“I have referred the matter to (the city attorney) for civil matters until they have exhausted their civil remedies and the criminal law response and my office’s costs. Limited resources, I believe, are focused specifically on violent crime,” Fathi wrote in an email.

The General Assembly initially passed legislation to ban the games in 2020, but then-Gov. Ralph Northam delayed the ban to help the state raise money for a covid-19 relief fund.

The ban goes into effect in 2021, state Sen. Bill Stanley, an attorney, sued on behalf of his client, Hermie Sadler, alleging it violated the constitutional rights of small businesses. It is his case that the recent Supreme Court decision allowed the ban to take effect. Greensville County Circuit Court dismissed the suit on Nov. 13.

Stanley said in a statement that Sadler intends to appeal the ruling and will continue to fight “government abuse and out-of-state casino interests.” Sadler, a former NASCAR driver, owns several small businesses that offer games of skill.

Mike Bailey, a spokesman for Pace-O-Match, said the company was disappointed by the decision and was committed to working with lawmakers to pass “joint” regulations. Pace-o-Matic is the parent company of Georgia-based Virginia Queen, one of the most prominent skill game operators in the commonwealth.

Pace-O-Matic has made several donations to candidates running for seats in the state House this year, including $20,000 to Lucas’ successful re-election bid.

Although those who support skill games say that they help small businesses to stay afloat and bring tax revenue to the state when they are regulated, they believe that there are other negative consequences.

Some opponents of skill games say it’s unwise to have so-called mini-casinos in restaurants and convenience stores. Others argue that the devices are intimidating. State run gambling industry And it hurts charity games and the Virginia Lottery. Profits from the Virginia Lottery support K-12 public schools.

Katie King, katie.king@virginiamedia.com



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