PORTSMOUTH, Va. (WAVY/WRIC) — A maker of skill games, which were recently outlawed in Virginia, is trying to expose a reported spike in illegal gaming since the ban took effect.
Before being outlawed in Virginia, skill games were common in convenience stores. They were sometimes referred to as “gray machines” because, for years, they too operated in the gray area of state law, dodging taxation and regulation.
Vice president in charge of government affairs for Pace-O-Matic, former Congressman and U.S. Attorney Tom Marino, held a series of press conferences alongside other company officials across the commonwealth Tuesday. They were held at sites of alleged illegal gaming operations.
10 On Your Side caught up with them in Portsmouth outside of Cherry Vapes off Airline Boulevard.
“The bottom line is they shut us down, told us to stop, we did. We abide by the law. But as I said earlier, the illegals are coming in droves, not paying taxes they are not paying all their taxes and the state isn’t getting the revenue they could get if they would have let us stay in operation,” said Marino.
Marino said they’re putting pressure on state lawmakers to crack down on “unregulated mini casinos.” He hopes drawing attention to the problem will also convince the General Assembly to revisit the idea of legalizing skill games, which generated millions in revenue for the coronavirus response after lawmakers decided to temporarily tax them.
Marino says their skill games used to be played in Cherry Vapes before the ban took place. Since then, he says they’ve gone inside to make sure all Pace-O-Matic machines were no longer used, only to find other illegal gambling devices were in their place.
10 On Your Side went inside Cherry Vapes to ask for comment for this story, but was directed to their attorney.
Marino says these illegal gaming platforms that pay $0 in state taxes have been filling the void of licensed skill games.
In 2020 Gov. Ralph Northam signed a law allowing skill games in Virginia. Northam came up with a proposal to tax and regulate the devices for one year, to help struggling businesses and establish a COVID-19 fund. But that law expired July 2021 — now skill games are banned.
“We’ve paid millions and millions of dollars in taxes. We’ve created jobs, thousands, and thousands of jobs, because a restaurant will say ‘My business picked up because of your skill machines, I have to hire another waitress,'” stated Marino.
Marino says they’ll continue to bring awareness until skill games are legal again. He says the company has a hearing coming up next Monday for a petition that was filed to get some injunctive relief.
State Sen. Bryce Reeves wasn’t surprised by the accusations. He has directed local law enforcement to investigate similar operations in his jurisdictions.
“They’re proliferating like mice,” Reeves said.
Reeves said many police departments don’t have the resources to regularly investigate illegal gambling.
Reeves is part of a General Assembly subcommittee working to close loopholes in state gaming regulations, create a more comprehensive regulatory structure and increase enforcement in the 2022 session.
“That’s been a big problem,” Reeves said. “We don’t have an enforcement arm.”
Reeves said he plans to introduce a bill in the 2022 legislative session to create a team within the Virginia State Police focused on criminal enforcement. The push follows the passage of another bill that allows county attorneys to crack down on illegal games within their jurisdiction by imposing civil fines of $25,000 per machine, according to Reeves.
However, Reeves was hesitant when asked if he would sponsor a bill legalizing, regulating and taxing skill games. The proposal was previously shot down by the General Assembly, despite support from Gov. Ralph Northam.
Reeves said he doesn’t want to see skill games back in bars and restaurants. He said some lawmakers don’t want them competing with other new forms of gambling like casinos.
“I’m not adverse to them coming back because I don’t think we should pick winners and losers. We should create a level playing field,” Reeves said. “Some of those folks in my caucus have a financial interest in other gambling entities’ success.”