Heretick Representing Another Lawsuit Battling Virginia Skill Games Ban

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Delegate Steve Heretick (D-Portsmouth) is representing plaintiffs in another lawsuit seeking an end to a ban on skill games in Virginia. On September 1, Roanoke-area convenience store operator Falu Patel filed suit claiming that the recently-enact ban violates his constitutional rights; Patel is represented by Heretick and Virginia Beach attorney Mike Joynes.

“It is appalling to me that here in the year 2021, we are still seeing affirmative acts of discrimination through the legislative process. It is clear from the statements made by the legislators who pushed the skill games ban agenda that SB 971 had one purpose – to discriminate against Asian American and African American convenience store owners who had these legal gaming devices in their establishments,” Joynes and Heretick said in a press release.

In 2020, the Virginia General Assembly outlawed skill games. However, Governor Ralph Northam and the legislature amended the ban to allow the state to tax the games to provide revenue for the COVID Relief fund, with the ban postponed until July 1, 2021.  In the wake of that ban, industry lobbyists have begun proposing alternatives, allegations of illegal skill games have begun popping up, and some legislators are pushing for legalizing the machines. It’s also led to multiple lawsuits, including one represented by Senator Bill Stanley (R-Franklin) and another filed in Norfolk by Heretick and Joynes.

“The lawsuit that Mike Joynes and I filed here in Norfolk previously was under the Virginia statutory Human Rights Act. And as you know from the opinion in that particular case, the judge did not believe that it was violative of that particular act as complained. but the court did make comment that we didn’t plea a constitutional cause of action, which is what we did in the Roanoke case,” Heretick told The Virginia Star.

He said, “So basically what we’re arguing in the Roanoke case is that the conduct of the General Assembly in outlawing the skill games was such that it was intentionally discriminatory as to the owners and the operators of convenience stores and smaller businesses who are typically mom-and-pop kinds of owners. and we’re arguing that the Virginia Constitution doesn’t allow that.”

The Roanoke complaint cites floor argument from 2020 in the Senate when powerful senators from both parties advocated for the ban. According to the complaint, Minority Leader Thomas Norment, Jr. (R-James City) compared skill games to the story of Ali Baba. It also cites Senator Janet Howell (D-Fairfax) saying skill games are “sleazy.”

Heretick said, “It’s certainly a negative connotation, that you’re either poor, or you’re being exploited. That somehow you’re squandering your money or whatever. And that seems to be the prevailing attitude by some members. But these are the same members who certainly have voted for casino gaming throughout Virginia, who voted to expand the lottery so that you can play it even online, who voted to allow parimutuel betting even online. And so these are the same members who voted to expand other forms of gaming, but not this one.”

But he’s hoping that will change in upcoming General Assembly sessions, motivated by potential revenue from the games.

“In the year that we had regulated and taxed skill games the Commonwealth did accrue, I think it’s like $160 million in brand new revenue, just from skill games alone,” Heretick said. “I’ve heard estimates that if properly regulated, skill games could bring in nearly half a billion to the Commonwealth.”

“As a policy matter, we take a very inconsistent view of this. We shouldn’t. And as a matter of revenue, to me it’s low-hanging fruit. It’s found money,” Heretick said.

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Eric Burk is a reporter at The Virginia Star and The Star News Network. Email tips to [email protected].
Photo “Slot Machines” by RJA1988.

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