Legislation to allow casinos by referenda in five Virginia cities, including Bristol, was engrossed and advanced to third reading Monday by the House of Delegates.

Also on Monday, the state Senate dispensed with the constitutional first reading of its version of casino legislation, Senate Bill 36.

House Bill 4 sailed through second reading with a minor amendment as lawmakers continued fine-tuning what Del. Jeffrey Bourne, D-Richmond, termed “one of the biggest undertakings” the General Assembly will consider this term. Engrossing the bill means this is the final form of the House version.

“I’ve listened to my locality, and they want as much ability to have a thoughtful, open, transparent conversation, should they go down this road of holding a referendum and actually allowing a casino development in Richmond,” Bourne said on the House floor.

Bourne backed an approved amendment to grant the Pamunkey Indian Tribe “preferred” status in its efforts to build casinos in Richmond and Norfolk. The tribe previously announced agreements to acquire land in both cities and establish casinos in each.

House bill patron Del. Barry Knight, R-Virginia Beach, agreed to the amendment and noted the bipartisan effort.

“We’ve had an awful lot of input. I believe we’ve had somewhere in the neighborhood of 15 amendments, so everyone has been working on this bill, and I think it’s a better crafted bill because of those amendments,” Knight said.

Del. Don Scott Jr., D-Portsmouth, also praised the measure.

“After listening to all the stakeholders in our community, in Portsmouth where I live, I think this bill will give us all an opportunity to have fairness in the process,” Scott said. “But most importantly, in this bill is a referendum, so every community will have the final say on what’s in that community.”

The House version closely mirrors the Senate version carried by Sen. Louise Lucas, D-Portsmouth. It requires a public referendum in each of the five cities, establishes oversight by an expanded Virginia Lottery Board and would set up and fund a problem gaming program for those with gambling addictions.

“I believe this measure very much accomplishes the overall objective of bringing a lot of people to the table and looking at it from a global perspective. For that reason, I support the measure,” Del. Joe Lindsey, D-Norfolk, said on the House floor.

The greatest difference between the two versions is with the proposed tax rates. The House version features a two-tier system of taxation of gaming revenues, based on the documented financial investment in a casino.

A casino built for between $250 million — the minimum required — and less than $350 million would have its first $150 million in annual gaming revenues taxed at 15%, its next $150 million taxed at 20% and revenues above $300 million taxed at 28%.

A casino valued at $350 million or more would have its first $200 million in annual gaming revenues taxed at 15%, its second $200 million taxed at 20% and revenues above $400 million taxed at 28%, Knight told House members.

The proposed Bristol Hard Rock Resort and Casino and the Pamunkey Norfolk casino are projected to cost $400 million each, and the Pamunkey casino proposed for Richmond is expected to cost $350 million. The Rush Street Gaming casino planned for Portsmouth doesn’t yet have a cost estimate, and officials in Danville haven’t selected a potential casino project or operator.

Under the House bill, a locality would receive between 5% and 7% of taxes on gaming.

Those same tax rates were included in a previous version of the Senate bill but raised during last Thursday’s Finance and Appropriations Committee. The Senate bill now proposes taxing the first $150 million of annual revenues at 27%, the next $150 million at 31%, and all annual revenues above $300 million would be taxed at 40%. The Senate bill makes no distinction based on the value of the casino.

The Senate version also prescribes that localities would receive between 9% and 11%.

The House version proposes charging a $5 million one-time fee for a casino operator’s license while the Senate bill would charge $15 million for that license.

dmcgee@bristolnews.com | 276-645-2532 | Twitter: @DMcGeeBHC | Facebook.com/david.mcgee.127

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