State Senate committee rejects casino bill that would allow a referendum in northern Virginia’s D.C. suburbs

February 6, 2024 2:10 PM
Photo: Shutterstock
  • Matthew Barakat, Associated Press
February 6, 2024 2:10 PM
  • Matthew Barakat, Associated Press

McLEAN, Va. (AP) — A Virginia Senate committee on Tuesday rejected legislation that would have allowed a referendum on a casino in the wealthy suburbs of the nation’s capital.

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The Senate Finance and Appropriations committee voted 13-2 against a bill that would have allowed Fairfax County to hold a referendum on building a casino and conference center in Tysons Corner, a neighborhood that is currently home to high-end retail and office development.

The committee vote effectively kills the bill for this year’s legislative session but provides a modicum of hope to casino supporters that it can be revived in the future. The committee rejected a motion to kill the bill outright, instead opting to carry the bill over to 2025 for future consideration.

The committee’s chairwoman, Sen. L. Louise Lucas, had said at an earlier subcommittee hearing that she wanted to find a way to keep the bill alive and get updated research on the potential tax revenue that could be generated. Lucas has been a supporter of casino legislation and noted at the subcommittee hearing that she’s known in the General Assembly as the “casino queen.”

Civic groups in neighborhoods around the proposed casino strongly opposed the idea and expressed concern about traffic and crime.

Some state and county lawmakers also said that a casino was a bad fit. They noted that the legislation specified that a casino would be placed along the region’s Silver Line Metrorail station, which is considered prime real estate by the county for more desirable commercial development.

“This is where Fortune 500 companies have come to make their home,” Sen. Jennifer Boysko, D-Fairfax, a casino opponent, said of Tysons Corner. “This is not something that Fortune 500s would like to have in their community.”

But the bill’s sponsor, Sen. David Marsden, D-Fairfax, said that demand for prime office space has fallen off since the pandemic, and Fairfax County needs the ability to diversify its tax base.

As for neighborhood opposition, Marsden said a referendum would allow the county as a whole, not any particular neighborhood, to decide whether they want the revenue boost that a casino would provide.

“No neighborhood wants any kind of development, not really,” Marsden said. “We all know that.”

Senate Majority Leader Scott Surovell said the casino would provide revenue that could essentially save each county taxpayer $500 to $600 annually.

A study commissioned in 2019 by the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Committee found that a northern Virginia casino could generate $155 million annually in tax revenue, more than any of the other casinos built in Virginia.

“There aren’t many bills that come before this committee that offer this much potential revenue,” Marsden said. “This absolutely has to be considered.”

Casino supporters have pointed to the success of Maryland’s MGM casino in National Harbor, which is just across the Potomac River from Virginia and relies heavily on northern Virginia for its customer base.

Connie Hartke with the Reston Citizens Association, one of the civic groups that has lined up against the casino, said citizen opposition to a casino will only continue to grow if proponents make another push next year.

“We’re very familiar with long term battles,” she said. “We’re going to be even stronger next year.”

Also on Tuesday, the committee voted to advance legislation that would allow Petersburg to hold a referendum on a casino.

Virginia voted in 2020 to allow locations in five cities, subject to referendum. Bristol, Danville, Portsmouth and Norfolk all voted for a casino; Richmond voters twice rejected a proposed casino in that city.

Petersburg, less than 25 miles (40.23 kilometers) south of Richmond, has sought the opportunity to host the casino that Richmond rejected.