Prospects for more legalized gambling in North Carolina remain uncertain

Published 1:35 pm Thursday, September 14, 2023

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By Gary D. Robertson, Associated Press

Prospects that another large expansion of gambling in North Carolina will be included in a state government budget appeared dimmer last week as the House’s top leader said there weren’t enough Republicans on board with the idea.

The GOP-controlled General Assembly is more than two months late on approving a spending plan through mid-2025. Votes on a final state budget could come this week.

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House and Senate Republicans are weighing whether that final budget should permit additional commercial casinos to be operated in the state, and legalize and regulate video gaming terminals.

House Republicans met privately earlier this week to gauge interest for gambling options within the budget. In an email late last Wednesday to those colleagues, Speaker Tim Moore wrote that there weren’t enough of them to pass a state budget on their own that includes more gambling.

“To be clear, we will not pass a budget that does not have 61 Republican votes,” Moore wrote, referring to a simple majority in the 120-member House. “As you can see, there are not 61 Republicans willing to vote for the budget if it includes gaming.”

In the email, obtained by The Associated Press and other media outlets, Moore wrote that House Republicans would meet this week to discuss “the budget without gaming.” One caucus meeting had since been scheduled for Monday afternoon.

Moore spokesperson Demi Dowdy said Friday that she had no additional comment beyond her statement Thursday that gambling would require “further caucus consideration” before it could be included in the budget.

Legislation can be approved in the House with fewer than 61 Republican “yes” votes, but that requires support from Democratic colleagues.

North Carolina already has three casinos operated by two American Indian tribes.

One proposal that surfaced this summer envisioned new casinos in Rockingham, Nash and Anson counties and another in southeastern North Carolina.

Senate leader Phil Berger of Rockingham County, who has been among the more consistent supporters of new casinos, told reporters Thursday that he expected the only way more gambling will happen this year is through the budget, and not standalone legislation.

“I think it’s either in the budget or we don’t have a particular pathway as far as gaming that I can think of,” Berger said. He expected more budget negotiations.

Casino supporters have said more casinos would create lots of jobs in economically challenged areas, grow tax revenues and counter gambling options sprouting up just across the border in Virginia.

While gambling interests have lobbied legislators, people living in the targeted counties and social conservatives have spoken against the proposed gambling, saying it would lower property values and create more social ills.

And anti-gambling forces have already swallowed a defeat this year — Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper signed a new law in June that authorizes sports betting and horse racing.

Budget negotiations slowed this summer on a host of issues, including income tax rate cuts, how billions of dollars in reserves are distributed and funding for a nonprofit seeking to turn applied research at University of North Carolina campus into jobs in rural areas.

Cooper has complained about the delays, in particular because a law expanding Medicaid to hundreds of thousands of low-income adults that he signed into law in March requires that a budget law be approved before people could start receiving coverage.

Cooper has sought Medicaid expansion since first taking office in 2017.

He may be willing to sign a final budget or let it become law without his signature even if it contains other provisions that he dislikes. Republicans hold narrow veto-proof seat majorities in both chambers. But such an advantage could evaporate if gambling provisions are included in the budget.

Cooper has urged that legislation on additional gambling be left out of the budget and receive more public scrutiny.

The gambling discussion has gotten the attention of some national conservatives. The Conservative Political Action Conference said on social media that it had heard “lots of troubling reports of backroom deals and arm twisting coming out of North Carolina” where a “full expansion of gaming” is “being wedged” into a budget bill that was supposed to be about tax cuts.