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Opinion/Editorial: Gaming changes premature

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Once again, Virginia is suffering from a rush to pass legislation without adequate study or preparation.

Back in June, we discussed problems with the state’s legalization of marijuana. The law, which applies to leafy weed, was changed before legislators accounted for other forms of marijuana.

Now it’s the state’s new leniency on gambling that faces regulatory confusion. This contretemps involves charitable gaming.

Legislation that went into effect last year allowed charities to offer poker tournaments as fundraisers — in addition to that old standby, the bingo hall.

Such charitable gaming establishments already are popping up around the state, even before rules have been settled, The Virginia Mercury reports.

And one of the purveyors of such an establishment is the chairman of the Charitable Gaming Board — the very group that was set up to advise the state’s regulatory agency “on all aspects of the conduct of charitable gaming in Virginia.”

Chuck Lessin has opened Pop’s Poker at the Richmond bingo hall and sports bar he runs, reports The Mercury. He’s also started a poker business that other charities can hire to act for them.

But the regulatory agency — the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services — hasn’t issued any permits for such businesses, The Mercury says.

At this point, the controversy gets even more perplexing.

VDACS and its advisory board spent months last year at odds over regulations. Representatives of the charitable gaming industry apparently wanted fast action to help them protect their turf against growing competition from other forms of now legalized gambling.

Without regulations even being established, many charitable gaming groups were going ahead anyway.

“We are all aware many charities are ignoring that request,” Lessin emailed VDACS officials last August. “The path of least resistance here is to simply be ready and license the charities and operators at the earliest opportunity.”

By the end of last year, VDACS and the Gaming Board had agreed on regulations.

But the General Assembly, now alarmed at what it was seeing, this year found a way to halt implementation of the new law: It added an amendment to the state budget — rather than straightforwardly repealing or amending the law itself.

In May, VDACS told operators it could no longer move forward in trying to approve permits.

That prompted a lawsuit from Lessin.

That’s right; he sued the very agency he was appointed to serve as an advisor.

Lessin said the law alone allowed gaming, even without implementing regulations.

He also argued that he should have gotten a permit because the regulations previously were in effect. There’s a certain logic in that.

But there’s no guarantee. A judge essentially agreed: Nothing in state law or regulations, even while they’re in force, provides an inherent right to approval.

That ruling came in August. Despite the adverse judgment, Lessin opened Pop’s Poker the following month. He said he’s running it as if the regulations were still in place.

This and other developments show that the charitable gaming program as originally constituted is too easily subject to conflict of interest.

Yes, an advisory board should contain expertise from relevant fields — in this case, charitable gaming. But a line is crossed if members stop advising and start agitating for regulations favorable to them — or for approving permits even before regulations can be formulated.

Indeed, one of the early clashes between the board and the agency was over a conflict-of-interest issue: a recommendation for safeguards to prevent someone from profiting from poker games while also controlling the charity that receives a portion of the proceeds. (The charity’s minimum share of the proceeds is only 2.5%, by the way.)

All this brouhaha simply proves the General Assembly’s point: Changes in overseeing the charitable gaming industry are not ready for prime time.

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