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Virginia lawmakers dodge questions on whether budget might include new policy on skill games

“Let’s keep ’em guessing,” House Appropriations Chairman Barry Knight, R-Virginia Beach, said Tuesday when asked for a response to the claim the budget could include a revised policy on skill games, either to tighten the existing ban or to lift it.

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By Graham Moomaw

Budget leaders in the Virginia General Assembly won’t say if they’re considering changing the state’s contested ban on slots-like skill machines through the budget, despite that possibility already convincing a judge to order a lengthy delay in a lawsuit seeking to overturn the ban.

Last month, lawyers challenging the ban as unconstitutional pointed to the legislature’s ongoing special session and unfinished budget to argue the case should be delayed until all sides know what the state’s official policy on skill games will be. But the General Assembly’s budget negotiators won’t even say whether skill-games are part of their discussions.

“Let’s keep ’em guessing,” House Appropriations Chairman Barry Knight, R-Virginia Beach, said Tuesday when asked for a response to the claim the budget could include a revised policy on skill games, either to tighten the existing ban or to lift it.

Knight insisted the budget will get done and said “fine-tuning” is underway.

“In negotiations, I don’t comment on anything,” Knight said. “That’s how I work a negotiation.”

Asked about potential skill games changes Tuesday after a meeting in Richmond, Senate Majority Leader Dick Saslaw, D-Fairfax, one of the 14 legislators working on the state budget, deferred to Senate Finance Chairwoman Janet Howell, D-Fairfax. Howell did not attend Tuesday morning’s Senate Finance Committee meeting, and she did not respond to an emailed request for comment Monday. In an email, a Senate budget staffer said “budget negotiations are ongoing.”

As Virginia recently relaxed laws to allow more types of state-sanctioned gambling, skill games have become a perennial point of contention. Usually found in convenience stores, sports bars and truck stops, they function similarly to chance-based slot machines but involve a small element of skill that allows backers to argue they’re more akin to traditional arcade games. Most machines involve slots-like reels and spins, but players have to slightly adjust the squares up or down in order to create a winning row of symbols.

Proponents insist the games are legal and give small Virginia business owners a piece of an industry dominated by big casino interests. In 2019, the chief prosecutor in Charlottesville concluded that they amount to illegal gambling devices, and critics have accused the industry of exploiting loopholes to set up a lucrative gaming enterprise that rapidly grew with minimal regulatory oversight.

After a one-year period of regulation and taxation to raise money for a COVID-19 pandemic relief fund, the critics won out in the General Assembly, with a ban on the machines taking effect in July 2021. But a Southside business owner who filed a lawsuit with the assistance of Sen. Bill Stanley, R-Franklin County, successfully won a court injunction late last year barring enforcement of that law until his legal challenge is resolved. After Stanley wrote a letter pointing to the special session and unfinished budget talks as a reason to delay a hearing scheduled for May 18, the judge overseeing the case postponed the hearing until Nov. 2. The order also prohibited the state from enforcing the ban against thousands of previously regulated skill machines until November. The order doesn’t apply to machines that weren’t fully legal before the ban took effect, a distinction sowing confusion for local officials trying to sort out what’s allowed and what’s not.

In recent social media posts, the plaintiff challenging the ban, truck stop owner and former NASCAR driver Hermie Sadler, said the delay was requested because “legislators are threatening to now try to ban or legislate skill games through the budget.”

“So we need to know what we are fighting against,” Sadler said in a message posted to Twitter last week in response to a Virginia Mercury article about the delay.

Skill-game supporters have claimed the ban was driven by other gambling interests who want to clear out smaller competitors to make more money for themselves. As the gambling turf wars continue in Richmond, some local governments are frustrated by the lack of clarity on whether the state is or isn’t banning the machines.

“It’s created chaos,” said Franklin City Manager Amanda Jarratt.

Jarratt said her city has been dealing with crime and other disturbances associated with the machines, but has gotten little help because there’s no regulatory agency in charge of them. Virginia ABC had temporary oversight of the machines starting in 2020, but that ended when the ban took effect last year and ABC no longer had legal responsibility over gaming machines in ABC-licensed businesses.

“It continuing to drag on over months is only making the situation worse and leaving localities in a difficult position,” she said, adding her city simply doesn’t have the staffing power to try to figure out which machines are operating legally and which are illegal. “You want to be fair to the business owners, but you also need to look out for the best interest of the locality as a whole.”

Jarratt said she’d like clearer direction on whether the state is going to allow the machines or not.

If a new skill-game provision is put into the state budget, it would still need to win approval from the full General Assembly. But with the clock ticking to pass a budget before the fiscal year ends June 30, it’s unclear how open party leaders would be to changes to whatever deal budget negotiators present as the final product of months of work.

Knight offered little clarity on whether skill games are even a live issue. He also seemed to caution against putting too much stock into what people say they’re hearing about the budget.

“I heard that we were going to do the budget today. I heard we were going to do it on the 24th. I heard we were going to do it on the 27th. I’ve heard June the first. I’ve heard a lot of things,” Knight said. “But as far as I know, the only people that know are maybe a few budget conferees. And we’re not talking. Because we’re working to get things right.”

Virginia Mercury is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Virginia Mercury maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Robert Zullo for questions: [email protected] Follow Virginia Mercury on Facebook and Twitter.

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Community

Bike the Holiday Lights

BASKET & BIKE and RVA on Wheels want to share the joy of bike riding in the city during this festive time of year.

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From now until January 8th there is a unique way to check out the holiday lights in Richmond. BASKET & BIKE and RVA on Wheels have teamed up to provide Richmond with a variety of tour experiences and rentals on wheels, and they will serve as your go-to place to test and purchase your new classic or electric bike, along with all the gear to outfit your bike style.

We’ll bike Downtown Richmond while the sun’s still out to stay warm! Chase the sunset with us on the avenues and bike lanes for a seasonal ride on classic or electric wheels. As dusk approaches, pass through holiday lights downtown where your tour ends with a voucher for a beverage (wine, beer, tea, coffee) at neighbors, Urban Farmhouse.

BASKET & BIKE Classic Bike $95
RVA on Wheels Electric Bike $125
Starts and Ends at 1301 E. Cary St.
Website and more Info

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Community

Street Closures for RVA Illuminates

Street closures on East Canal Street, South 7th Street and South 8th Street are already in place.

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Downtown

Missing context, political bias: Some of critics’ objections to Virginia’s new history standards

A number of groups are questioning new history and social science standards proposed by Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s administration ahead of a Board of Education meeting to begin reviewing them Thursday.

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A number of groups are questioning new history and social science standards proposed by Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s administration ahead of a Board of Education meeting to begin reviewing them Thursday.

Critics from diverse communities and lawmakers, most recently in a Nov. 15 letter to the governor and school officials, argue the new standards are missing influential figures and events and voice concern about what they say is a lack of transparency regarding who authored the changes.

The standards will set Virginia’s expectations for student learning in history and social science, which are assessed through the Standards of Learning tests. The Board of Education delayed its first review after Superintendent Jillian Balow requested additional time to correct errors, reorder guidance and allow additional experts to weigh in on the draft.

“Continued review and edits to the standards over the past several months have strengthened the content at each grade level,” wrote Balow in a Nov. 10 letter to the Board of Education. “The edits honor the work done previously by Virginians, and national and state experts.”

Balow also said in her letter that draft curriculum frameworks, which are guides for teachers, will be published later.

However, critics in the Nov. 15 letter said the curriculum frameworks missing from the standards make it “impossible for anybody to effectively evaluate the draft as a whole.”

Among the letter’s signatories are 10 Democratic lawmakers and groups including the Virginia Education Association, the nonprofit Hamkae Center, which describes itself as organizing “Asian Americans to achieve social, economic, and racial justice in Virginia,” the Fairfax County NAACP and the Sikh Coalition. The Virginia Education Association referred inquiries to the Hamkae Center.

They also questioned the number of “problematic content changes that fail to reflect the concerns of our diverse communities” and the involvement of groups such as the Michigan based-Hillsdale College in the review of the standards.

Balow said last month that representatives from other colleges expressed interest in commenting on the draft standards after VPM reported that she was working with the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative educational think tank, to develop the standards.

Here are a few objections to the proposed new standards that educational and other groups have raised.

Missing context

Critics say parts of the new standards lack proper context.

For example, while the standards replace the term “Indian” with “Indigenous people” and require students to study aspects of the groups, they do not mention that Indigenous People’s Day replaced Columbus Day in 1992 because Indigenous people view Christopher Columbus as a colonizer rather than a discoverer.

Additionally, the standards recognize the development of slavery in colonial Virginia but lack an emphasis on the slave trade and tobacco plantations, critics say.

“Nazis” and “The Final Solution,” which are necessary to understand the Holocaust, are also missing from the standards.

“Content is crucial for understanding the Holocaust and other genocides,” said Gail Flax, a retired educator. “You have to know what happened before and what happened afterward to be able to analyze and contextualize history.”

Narrative

With the removal of historical figures and events, critics have questioned the narrative of history the administration is conveying to students.

Zowee Aquino of the Hamkae Center said the revisions reflect “pretty explicit political bias.” She said the standards also have a Eurocentric theme that focuses on European or Anglo-American ideas and disregards the contributions of ethnic minorities in white countries.

For example, the name of Martin Luther King Jr., a civil rights activist, was removed from the elementary school standards. King’s name first appears in the sixth grade standards.

Aquino said there’s no mention of Juneteenth, the Chinese Exclusion Act or Martin Luther King Jr. Day in any of the standards. China and the African civilization of Mali, which have been part of the standards for world culture studies, have also been removed from third grade standards.

The standards also do not include any mention of tribal sovereignty.

Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, said in a letter to the Board of Education that the revised draft deletes “major components of our history and deliberately omits the diverse perspectives that shape our commonwealth and our nation.”

For example, she wrote that the draft omits any discussion of the history or modern-day culture of the Latino community, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders or the LGBTQ community.

“These decisions would mean that hundreds of thousands of Virginia children would not have the opportunity to learn about their community’s contributions to the fabric and history of our nation,” McClellan wrote. “And, all Virginia students would lack a fuller understanding of our country’s history.”

Rejected recommendations

The inclusion of King, the national holiday for the civil rights leader and Juneteenth marking the day when all enslaved Africans became free were several edits recommended by the Virginia Commission on African American History Education, but excluded or generalized in the redraft.

The list of edits excluded include the mention of John Mercer Langston, the first African American congressman from Virginia. The commission’s recommendation that the standards include the phrase that “not everyone was considered a citizen when our country began, and for a long time after that, even until today” was also excluded.

Mention of Indigenous people and their culture being affected by white European colonization was also excluded from the standards, as was the phrase “the Virginia Colony’s economy was greatly dependent upon temporary and permanent servitude.”

Historical errors and inaccuracies

Critics also say the proposed standards have historical errors and inaccuracies.

Specifically, students starting in the fourth grade are required to explain the reasons for the relocation of Virginia’s capital from Jamestown to Williamsburg as part of the Revolutionary War. However, an email from the Virginia Social Studies Leaders Consortium Monday said “this makes absolutely no sense” given Virginia’s capital was moved from Williamsburg to Richmond to provide greater protection against British attack.

Additionally, the group says the standards erroneously convey that Zachary Taylor, who was elected in 1848, was the most recent president from Virginia instead of Woodrow Wilson, who was elected in 1912.

The standards do not explicitly say which president was most recent. The document only states that students starting in the fourth grade will be required to explain the growth of a new America with an emphasis on the role of Virginians by explaining Virginia’s prominence in national leadership, emphasizing its eight presidents from Thomas Jefferson to Zachary Taylor.

“The previous version of the proposed standards did not contain egregious historical errors such as this because they were developed by a team of educators, division leaders and historians,” the consortium wrote.

Age appropriateness

Aquino also questioned whether the revisions are age appropriate.

For example, first and third graders must learn about the Code of Hammurabi, an ancient law text, and Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius, under the proposed history standards. She said the history is “pretty dense and intense” and includes details about capital punishment.

However, Charles Pyle, a spokesman with the Virginia Department of Education, said under the standards, first graders will learn where the first civilizations began and third graders will learn about democracy. He said Aurelius is part of a list of suggested examples of mythical and historical figures students could encounter as they “hear, read, and retell stories.”

Open access

With the focus on the amount of work demanded of teachers due to the workforce shortage, critics question a sentence in the preface of the history standards that states teachers should provide all of their instructional materials to parents.

Under the Board of Education’s current regulations, parents have the right to inspect instructional materials used as part of the educational curriculum for students.

Aquino said many reports link teacher burnout with increased work demands and argued another mandate does not help support students.

“It’s a huge task that the new administration is asking them to take on that doesn’t improve instruction,” Aquino said.

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