Senate Finance kills Petersburg casino referendum, but sponsor says issue is not dead yet
RICHMOND — Perhaps it was fitting that Thursday was "Groundhog Day" because just like in the 1993 film of the same name, history is repeating itself for the Petersbrg casino referendum bill.
Thursday night, in an almost exact same vote as last year, the Senate Finance & Appropriations Committee killed state Sen. Joe Morrissey's bill that would create a November referendum for Petersburg voters to decide if a casino should come to town. This time, unlike last time, proponents came armed with a $1.4 million proposal to build a casino-centric office and retail development in south Petersburg, bringing with it millions of dollars in revenue and the prospect of around 10,000 jobs once it was completed in 10-15 years.
That did not seem to faze the committee, who shut Morrissey down in mid-testimony to vote 8-7 to kill the proposal.
The 2022 vote in the same committee was 9-7.
The difference this year appeared to be Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond. Last year, she voted in favor of the bill, but this year, she decided to oppose it.
That did not set well with Morrissey, D-Chesterfield County. He said McClellan was one of the five Democrats who told him and other pro-Petersburg folks that they would support the measure.
Morrissey, who lost to McClellan in last month's Democratic primary to run for Virginia's 4th Congressional District in a special election Feb. 21, called her vote "a big slap in the face" to a part of the congressional district she is hoping to represent in Washington.
Four other Democrats joined three Republicans in voting against the measure Thursday. In addition to McClellan, they were Democrats Louise Lucas of Portsmouth, Mamie Locke of Hampton, John Edwards of Roanoke and committee chair Janet Howell of Fairfax County; and Republicans Frank Ruff of Mecklenburg County, Emmett Hanger of Augusta County and Steve Newman of Lynchburg.
Supporting the referendum were Democrats George Barker and Adam Ebbin of Alexandria, Creigh Deeds of Charlottesville, Chap Petersen, David Marsden and Dick Saslaw of Fairfax County; and Republican Jill Vogel of Fauquier County.
McClellan's vote was not the only change from the previous year. Ruff supported it last year, but voted Thursday against it, while Vogel and Barker, opponents last year, supported it.
Four Finance members also sit on Senate General Laws — Barker, Ebbin, Locke and Ruff. Locke continued her opposition, and Barker and Ebbin carried their support over from Wednesday’s General Laws meeting.
On the other hand, Ruff voted in favor of the bill in General Laws, but changed his mind 24 hours later and voted in Finance to defeat it.
The only Finance member not voting Thursday was Sen. Tommy Norment, R-James City County. Norment supported the bill last year, but even if he had been in Thursday's meeting and voted the same way, a tie still would mean the bill would not advance.
"We counted the votes before the meeting, and we thought we had 11," Morrissey said. All of the Democrats who voted against the bill "knew how important this bill was ... and they let this happen," he added.
Jared Leopold, a spokesperson for McClellan, refuted Morrissey's claim that his boss had promised the proponents her support. He said McClellan voted against it because of the evidence presented by a a state-sponsored study that both Petersburg and Richmond could be viable hosts. That study was not yet available when Senate Finance voted against it last year.
"Senator McClellan received feedback from constituents across the region demonstrating that there is no clear consensus at this time on whether a casino should be built in Richmond, Petersburg, both cities, or neither," Leopold said. "Consequently, she opposed legislation making that decision for the region by pitting the voters of one locality against the other."
Thursday's action concluded a Senate process that mirrored what happened in 2022 when the idea of Petersburg hosting Virginia's fifth casino was first introduced. It came on the heels of Richmond narrowly defeating a 2021 referendum that would have brought a $565 million casino/hotel complex to that city's southside.
Just like in 2022, the legislation sailed through the Senate General Laws & Technology Committee before stumbling in Senate Finance.
More:Petersburg casino referendum bill passed by Senate committee but with a wage-guarantee caveat
Maryland-based The Cordish Companies was brought on late last year to design the development. A message left with Cordish officials seeking comment on the Senate vote has not yet been answered.
Despite the setback, Morrissey said the fight is not over. Del. Kim Taylor, R-Dinwiddie County, has companion legislation that cleared the House General Laws Committee this week and is before the House Appropriations Committee on Friday.
"There's lots of different things in place we can do before [adjournment]," Morrissey said. One of those is Taylor's bill advancing from the House over to the Senate, but if it gets that far, it would wind up in front of Senate Finance and possibly die there.
The other possibility is a budget amendment because in Virginia, the budget not only pays for projects but can also legislate where needed. That is how Petersburg's casino dream was resurrected last year when Morrissey and Taylor successfully amended the 2022-24 biennium budget to include language that created the study.
Asked specifically by The Progress-Index if a budget amendment could be in the works to keep the referendum issue afloat, Morrissey coyly answered, "That's what happened last year."
In 2020, the General Assembly identified Bristol, Danville, Norfolk, Portsmouth and Richmond as potential spots to grow Virginia's legalized gambling industry. All five cities held their own referenda on the issue, and only in Richmond did it fail. However, Richmond pushed for a redo of its referendum claiming that misinformation about the project had been circulated prior to the original vote, and city officials were confident that given another crack at it, the referendum would be approved.
Petersburg opposed the re-vote, saying that Richmond had its chance and lost, and now it was Petersburg's turn. Several lawmakers at the state Capitol seemed to agree with that sentiment, saying that while you don't have to agree with the vote, you need to accept the results.
Petersburg also had argued that unlike the other host cities, Richmond was not in a state of fiscal despair. The other four cities were chosen because of the notion that casinos can breathe life into cities with economic challenges, and Petersburg had more of a kinship than Richmond to those four.
Two of the host cities have casinos up and running. In Bristol, a Hard Rock casino has set up shop in a former shopping center while a brand new venue is being built. Recently, Portsmouth's Rivers Casino opened in its permanent location on Victory Boulevard just off Interstate 264.
Norfolk's Headwaters Casino to be on the bank of the Elizabeth River is a $500 million partnership with the Pamunkey Native American tribe and Tennessee billionaire Jon Yarborough. And in Danville, the former Dan River Industries textile complex is being converted into a casino to be called Caesar's Virginia.
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Bill Atkinson (he/him/his) is an award-winning journalist who covers breaking news, government and politics. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @BAtkinson_PI.
This article originally appeared on The Progress-Index: Virginia Senate panel again kills Petersburg casino referendum