Another option emerges to expand North Carolina gambling, but most Democrats say they won’t back it

Published 7:55 am Wednesday, September 20, 2023

Getting your Trinity Audio player ready...

By Gary D. Robertson, Associated Press

The prospects of enacting soon an overdue North Carolina budget, permitting more state-sanctioned gambling and implementing Medicaid expansion stayed uncertain Monday as Republicans suggested dividing the topics between two bills. But most Democratic colleagues sound unwilling to provide the necessary votes.

Action for passing a two-year state government spending plan idled last week when House Republicans said they didn’t have enough votes to pass the budget on their own if it contained language that would authorize four additional casinos and legalize video gambling machines statewide.

Get the latest headlines sent to you

Senate leader Phil Berger said House leaders should have gone forward with votes on the budget containing the casinos and video machines because a majority of House Republicans still supported them.

But a proposal surfaced over the weekend would place the gambling expansion and language implementing Medicaid expansion together in the same bill that would be voted on later this week. And a separate budget bill, with the gambling that a lot of Republicans opposed taken out, would be voted on separately, Rep. Jason Saine of Lincoln County, the House’s top budget writer, told media outlets.

Saine didn’t respond immediately Monday to a text seeking comment. House Majority Leader John Bell, a Wayne County Republican, said later Monday he was waiting for an update on this week’s voting schedule. Through a spokesperson, Berger’s office said it had no information to offer on the path forward.

A state law that Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper signed in March directing the state to offer Medicaid to hundreds of thousands of low-income adults required the budget’s passage before expansion could be carried out. A budget was supposed to be in place July 1, and Medicaid expansion is among the top priorities for Cooper and legislative Democrats.

But the new proposal, unveiled late Monday, would instead implement expansion if this new gambling measure became law.

While Republicans have narrow veto-proof majorities in each chamber, opposition by social conservatives to gambling or the lack of public discussion on the gambling provisions makes Democratic assistance likely to get them approved. So it appears some Republican leaders are hopeful enough Democrats would vote for a standalone bill authorizing Medicaid expansion even if it contained the gambling.

Democrats seem mostly unified against the maneuvering so far.

Cooper wrote over the weekend that the proposal pairing Medicaid expansion and gambling was “the most brutally dishonest legislative scheme I’ve seen in my 3+ decades.”

“People are right to be suspicious,” Cooper wrote on X, formerly known as Twitter. “Something has a grip on Republican leaders and it’s not the people of NC.”

Separate open letters released Monday — one backed by all 20 Democrats in the 50-seat Senate and another by 40 of the 48 House Democrats — blasted the pairing efforts while citizens and schools have waited 2 1/2 months for a state budget to pass.

“Now, having lost significant support within their own caucuses and constituents for casinos, support it seems they never had, they are linking casinos to the healthcare of hundreds of thousands of North Carolinians, gambling with their health and lives,” the Senate letter reads.

And House Democrats wrote their letter lets “Republican leadership — and the public — know we will not be bullied into blindly supporting this bill.”

North Carolina already has three casinos operated by the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians and the Catawba Indian Nation.

House Democrats received late Monday the proposed legislation pairing gambling and the Medicaid expansion, along with legislative staff estimates that the additional casinos and state-regulated video gambling machines could generate several hundred million dollars annually for state coffers.

The 49-page proposal in part would create “rural tourism districts” where gambling venues and other developments could be built. Three of the four would be in rural counties that meet certain criteria, while a fourth could be operated by the Lumbee tribe in several southeastern counties.

While legislators have said the other three could be built in Anson, Nash and Rockingham counties, the language allows other options. Berger lives in Rockingham County and has been one of the strongest casino supporters, especially given that a new casino opened recently in nearby Danville, Virginia.

Potential developers, whose applications would be recommended for approval by the state administration secretary to the commerce secretary, would agree at each location to generate at least 1,750 jobs and $500 million in private investment. The state would create a 22.5% excise tax on gross gaming revenue.

Operators of video gambling machines would be licensed by the state lottery commission, and the machines could be set up at locations which have alcohol beverage control permits, sell lottery tickets or where fraternal or veterans’ groups gather, according to the proposal.