RICHMOND, Va. — The General Assembly has until Saturday to figure out how Virginia will study casino gaming over the next year.

Separate bills came forward in the House and Senate. Lawmakers are at odds over how to pursue it.

Initially, a plan came forward from the Senate to allow people in five communities, including Bristol, Danville, Portsmouth, Norfolk and Richmond, to vote by referendum on whether or not they would want a casino project in their area. That means voters at the polls would have the final say. 

Lawmakers from Hampton Roads and Southwest Virginia were major proponents of this plan last month because they said a project of this size would help boost their local economies. Specifically in Bristol, Danville and Portsmouth, economic develop studies estimate over 15,000 jobs would be created and nearly $100 million in local tax revenue by the seventh year of a casino being opened. 

“It would be a huge game changer for Southwest Virginia and for the city of Bristol,” Sen. Bill Carrico (R-District ) said.

Sen. Carrico worked on the legislation. Because of the additions to SB1126, the voter referendum would after the study is completed by the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission (JLARC) by Nov. 1, 2019. 

While he isn’t personally interested in gambling, he thinks localities should decide if they want a project this big to come to their region. 

“If it’s rejected by the people then there’s no reason to spend the money on the study,” he added. “I never wanted to do a statewide referendum on these issues because I don’t want Northern Virginia telling Bristol what they can have.” 

Another approach brought up in the House would just be a straight study without taking the issue to voters.

“You don’t want to pick the winners and losers before they have a chance to study the framework,” Del. Chris Peace (R-District 97), the bill sponsor, said. 

In the HB2321, a separate commission would oversee the study. It would focus not only on the financial impacts but social too. 

“The Commonwealth’s attorney also expressed concerns about the increase of dockets that would come from any related crime that might impact a community,” Del. Peace said.

The deadline for the House study is also Nov. 1, 2019. 

There has been some criticism from groups, like the Family Foundation, who say casinos could cause a rise in gambling addiction in communities closest to them. 

The House of Delegates rolled the Senate bill into the House one, so now it’s being reviewed by a conference committee. Those lawmakers will hash out the final details and try to reach a compromise before the end of the week.

The budget also has a few items in it that could fund a casino gaming study too. Gov. Ralph Northam expressed interest in the topic before session.