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The effort to allow a casino referendum in Petersburg is dead, but the debate rolls on

Casino Gambling Machine
Wayne Parry
A gambler rings up a win on a slot machine at the Hard Rock casino in Atlantic City, N.J., Aug. 8, 2022.

Virginia now has four casinos that are up and running or will be soon, and lawmakers in Richmond are debating where to put a fifth.

The effort to allow a referendum in Petersburg to see if voters there would approve a new casino has been rejected, at least for this year. But Senator Joe Morrissey is a Democrat from Richmond who says he's playing the long game – pushing budget language to prevent Richmond from holding a second referendum.

"This casino is going to be won not just in the fourth quarter but in the last two minutes," Morrissey says. "And I would much rather be in Petersburg's position now than Richmond's.

"Why do you say that," asks reporter Michael Pope.

"Richmond held one, and they didn't get a referendum. I feel confident that there's going to be language in there, and if they are prohibited from holding another referendum, Petersburg will be back next year with some different players," Morrissey replies.

Different players because the election this fall will include all 100 seats in the House of Delegates and all 40 seats in the state Senate. For now, though, the debate is about that budget language Morrissey wants that would prohibit a second referendum in Richmond. Delegate Luke Torian is a Democrat from Prince William County – and a former House Appropriations chairman – who says that would be a mistake.

"I'm not a gamer, but I certainly would like to have the opportunity if I lived here in Richmond to vote on bringing such a casino to the capital city," says Torian.

The Virginia Casino Act allows for five casinos, so the debate happening now behind the scenes is a zero-sum game between supporters of a Petersburg casino versus supporters of a Richmond casino.

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.

Michael Pope is an author and journalist who lives in Old Town Alexandria.