Virginia governor vetoes bill to regulate skill games

May 18, 2024 2:53 PM
Photo: By Gage Skidmore from Surprise, AZ, United States of America - Glenn Youngkin, CC BY-SA 2.0,
  • Sarah Rankin, Associated Press
May 18, 2024 2:53 PM
  • Sarah Rankin, Associated Press

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin took action on a final batch of bills from the year’s regular legislative session Friday, signing seven but vetoing 48, including closely watched measures that would have ended a tax break for a Confederate heritage organization and allowed small businesses to host skill games, which are similar to slot machines.

Story continues below

The vetoes came after Youngkin first proposed amendments that the legislature rejected. In a nighttime statement, he said he was willing to keep working with the Democratic-controlled General Assembly on the issues but was vetoing measures that were “not ready to become law.”

Youngkin made clear that among the topics he is open to continuing to negotiate is legislation related to contraception. He vetoed at least one such measure, a Democratic priority, that was intended to protect access to birth control.

“I support access to contraception,” Youngkin said. “However, we cannot trample on the religious freedoms of Virginians. And that is the issue the recommendations I sent back to the General Assembly addressed.”

Democrats criticized the veto, with state party chair Susan Swecker saying in a statement, “Youngkin just proved to Virginians that once again, he does not care about their health or rights.”

The governor also nixed a measure that would have eliminated both a recordation and a property tax exemption for the United Daughters of the Confederacy, the Richmond-based women’s group that helped erect many of the country’s Confederate monuments. Proponents had argued that the group’s priorities were out of line with 21st-century values.

In a veto statement, Youngkin did not defend or criticize the tax break but said Virginia law is littered with inconsistencies in property tax exemptions and suggested a more sweeping reform would be appropriate than picking “winners and losers.”

“A more effective approach to reform would involve broad-based measures, allowing local governments autonomy in determining tax exemptions and considering the locality’s tax base and deed transfers. These considerations would be permitted when a county or city sets its real estate tax levy, helping to reduce effective tax increases through assessments,” he wrote.

Sen. Angelia Williams Graves of Norfolk, a sponsor of the bill, said on social media that she was committed to bringing the measure forward again.

Youngkin also rejected a second Confederacy-related bill that would have repealed the authorization for special license plates honoring Robert E. Lee and the Sons of Confederate Veterans, another heritage group.

The governor noted that the Department of Motor Vehicles offers a wide range of specialty plates for “debated social issues.”

“Some of these plates may be offensive and controversial to some, but the Department oversees a neutral and impartial process for their approval and issuance, with ultimate approval by the legislature,” he said.

Youngkin’s veto of the skill games measure, one of the year’s most contentious issues, was widely expected. The governor sought to overhaul the bill that was sent to him, but the Legislature overwhelmingly rejected his changes. Youngkin wanted a higher tax rate and far stricter limits on where the machines could be located, carving out a 35-mile radius around any casino, racetrack or gambling “satellite facility” where they would have been banned.

Virginia policymakers have spent years sparring over the issue amid a big-money lobbying fight between various gambling interests. Casinos and charity gambling factions have opposed legalization, while supporters say the machines level the playing field for small businesses at a time when the state has increasingly opened the door for legalized betting.

The skill games, also known as gray machines, began popping up in small businesses like gas stations and convenience stores before 2020, operating in a murky area of the law. The General Assembly voted to ban them in 2020, at the same time lawmakers were clearing the way for casinos for the first time.

Youngkin said while on the campaign trail that he supported skill games, comments that proponents of legalization highlighted this year.

Legislators involved in the legalization effort, including Democratic Sen. Aaron Rouse and Republican Del. Terry Kilgore, said this week that they planned to work “quickly” with Youngkin’s administration on a compromise bill.

The governor also vetoed at least three gun control measures, including one that would have prohibited firearms in hospitals that provide mental health services. Earlier in the year, he vetoed dozens of other Democratic gun bills, though he signed two that had broad bipartisan support.

The seven measures Youngkin signed ranged from parental notification of overdoses in schools to local governments’ ability to lower speed limits.