Truckers playing skill games at Sadler's truck stop. Photo by Markus Schmidt.

Hermie Sadler’s truck stop in Emporia is a good place to stop for gas if you’re a trucker headed north-south on Interstate 95 or east-west on U.S. 58.

Sadler and his lawyer – state Sen. Bill Stanley, R-Franklin County – think it’s a good place to test the constitutionality of the state’s ban on so-called “skill games,” those video games you find in many convenience stores and, in this case, at Sadler’s Travel Plaza. So far, they’re winning: They’ve won a court injunction against the ban until the case can be heard in November. Cardinal’s Markus Schmidt had a story about this earlier this week.

Sadler’s truck stop also a good place to look at the fiscal impact of these games.

About 2.1% of Emporia’s budget comes from the taxes on those games.

Now let’s look at the home localities of the two legislators most identified with the opposition to skill games: state Sen. Janet Howell, D-Fairfax County, and state Sen. Tommy Norment, R-James City County.

In James City County, only 0.02% of the county budget comes from skill games. In Fairfax County, the figure is a James Bond-like 0.007%.

The casino industry hates these skill games. The casino industry thinks these games draw money away from potential casino-goers. That seems absurd to me – it’s hard to think some trucker stuffing quarters into a machine at Sadler’s truck stop during a break on a long haul is somehow an economic competitor to a casino that might be an hour or more away at best – but that’s the logic. These games might, indeed, be a competitor to the Rosie’s Gaming Emporium under construction in Emporia (an offshoot of the ones in Vinton and Collinsville), but what of it? Taco Bell is a competitor to McDonald’s; should the state ban fast-food tacos to benefit the fast-food burger industry? That’s essentially what the state is trying to do – ban this type of gaming while sanctioning that type. If we really believe in the free market system, I’m baffled at why the state should be picking one sector of the gaming industry over the other. “I absolutely deplore these machines,” Norment once said. Somehow these machines at a truck stop are considered low-class thievery, but a casino is quite respectable economic development.

Now, this is an opinion column, and that’s my opinion. Others’ opinions might vary – some obviously do. That’s why I like numbers. Two plus two is still four, no matter how much I might wish it sometimes was five.

There might be another reason Howell and Norment are so dead-set against skill games: Fiscally speaking, the games don’t matter very much to their localities. True, Fairfax County might collect more skill game tax revenue than all but one other locality – Virginia Beach, with its boardwalk, is No. 1. On a percentage basis, though, skill games hardly matter – see how many zeros come after the decimal point above.

In many rural areas, though, skill games account for a bigger percentage of the local budget. We’re not talking big percentages, mind you, but they do bring in enough to start showing up on the ledger.

In Stanley’s Franklin County, 1.1% of the county’s revenues can be attributed to skill games. In Pittsylvania County and Prince Edward County, 1.2%. In Campbell County, 1.9%. Emporia is noteworthy because the figure creeps above 2%, but it’s not the only one. In Amherst County, 2.3% of the county’s revenue comes from skill games.

If skill games went away, some rural areas (but not all) would feel the fiscal pinch in a way that non-rural localities would not. That seems worth some consideration.

Arlington collects $89,224 a year from skill games. Amherst County collects $124,944.

Alexandria collects $97,440. Bedford County collects $140,304.

Loudoun County collects $292,848. Pittsylvania County is close to that at $263,856. Loudoun County has the highest median income of any county in the United States. Pittsylvania County does not. If that skill game revenue went away, Loudoun County could more easily make up the difference than Pittsylvania could.

It’s rare to see the state cut off a revenue stream – usually, it’s in the business of creating new ones. But if it does, is the legislature going to be proposing some way to keep these localities whole? Don’t bet on that. (See what I did there?)

Here’s another way to look at this revenue.

The average annual salary for a teacher in Emporia (according to the superintendent’s report filed with the Department of Education) is $54,932 a year. That means the $53,760 in skill game tax revenue almost covers a teaching position, not counting benefits.

In other localities, the games pay for more.

In Henry County, the average annual teacher’s salary is $55,212. Henry brings in $112,560 from skill games, or 2.03 teachers.

In Wythe County, the average annual teacher’s salary is $48,468. Wythe brings in $101,520, or 2.09 teachers.

In Danville, the average annual teacher’s salary is $53,906. Danville brings in $149,194, or 2.76 teachers.

In Bedford County, the average annual teacher’s salary is $48,789. Bedford brings in the aforementioned $140,304 from skill games, or 2.87 teachers.

In Campbell County, the average annual teacher’s salary is $48,797. Campbell brings in $179,568, or 3.67 teachers.

In Roanoke County, the average annual teacher’s salary is $51,569. Roanoke County brings in $210,048, or 4.07 teachers.

In Pittsylvania County, the average annual teacher’s salary is $47,975. Pittsylvania brings in $263,856, or 5.49 teachers.

In Lynchburg, the average annual teacher’s salary is $48,690. Lynchburg brings in $290,592, or 5.96 teachers.

In Roanoke, the average annual teacher’s salary is $58,154. Roanoke brings in $419,904, or 7.2 teachers.

I could go on, but you get the idea. Maybe Danville someday can replace this revenue with casino revenue, but the other localities won’t.

Actually, I will go on just a bit longer.

In Norment’s James City County, the average annual teacher’s salary is $56,248, so the $53,376 his county brings in doesn’t quite pay for one teacher – so, again, his home county won’t feel much financial pain if skill games go away.

However, in Howell’s Fairfax County, where skill games account for such a small percentage of the overall revenue, they still cover more teaching positions than any of these other localities I just cited. The average annual teacher’s salary in Fairfax County is $76,559 (nearly twice what it is in Dickenson County, but I digress). Fairfax takes in $608,784 in skill game tax revenue – enough for 7.95 teachers.

I doubt Howell is telling voters back home in Fairfax that she’s in favor of either cutting eight teaching positions or raising the real estate tax rate, but that’s sort of how this math works out.

Just a little bit more math: Let’s see what happens in Virginia Beach which, as I mentioned, collects more skill game tax revenue than any other locality. The average annual teacher’s salary there is $59,779. The city brings in $1,045,440 from skill games – enough for 17.48 teachers!

So, ultimately, this isn’t whether skill games are “deplorable” or not (the last politician who used the word “deplorable” didn’t fare so well), or whether we believe in a free market, or whether we think these games are an economic threat to casinos, or any other opinion we might hold. This is about whether this revenue gets replaced or not. Will it be?

Dwayne Yancey

Yancey is editor of Cardinal News. His opinions are his own. You can reach him at dwayne@cardinalnews.org.