With the stroke of Gov. Roy Cooper’s pen, a years-long journey to legal online sports betting ended in North Carolina on Wednesday.
As the cliché goes, the third time was the charm. After legislative attempts in 2021 and 2022 failed, 2023 was the bet that cashed. North Carolina is the 28th state to make online sports betting legal. It joined neighbors Tennessee and Virginia on that list.
“Let’s face it, sports wagering is already happening in our state,” Cooper said. “Surrounding states here and across the country are already taking advantage.”
It took a while for North Carolina to take advantage. It also took something we don’t see much in government these days: bipartisan cooperation.
Past sports betting failures lay the groundwork
The work put into passing expanded North Carolina sports betting in 2021 and 2022 fell one vote shy last year. The effort cleared the Senate and a House committee in 2021 before being tabled until 2022. After changes were made to sports betting legislation, the measure ultimately died last year.
“It was tough that first year where we had just one vote shy of getting this bill passed, but it gave us an opportunity to work harder,” said Republican state Rep. Jason Saine, the chief sponsor of this year’s successful sports betting legislation, House Bill 347.
“That first term when this bill failed by one vote, it was a challenge for us,” said Democratic state Rep. Zack Hawkins. “And we needed to really think and assess how we were going to move something like this forward. This is not an easy lift for North Carolina.”
So lawmakers went to work. They went to work together. Republicans and Democrats teamed up and accepted the challenge of passing a sports betting bill in 2023.
Coming together for a common goal
Lawmakers who supported sports betting faced opposition rooted in long-held beliefs, notably that gambling leads to addiction or scandal. They also knew some lawmakers didn’t understand some aspects of the legislation or had changes they wanted to be made.
“We wanted to make sure that everyone felt heard,” Hawkins said. “That’s one of the things we learned from one term to the next. That everyone had to take this back to their district and to explain what the benefits were for North Carolina. I think together we were able to do that.”
Saine, Hawkins and Democratic state Sen. Paul Lowe spoke at Wednesday’s bill-signing ceremony about how lawmakers from both sides of the aisle and the governor worked together to fine-tune the bill. They spoke of the many conversations they had with other lawmakers about the bill.
“Me and my co-sponsors worked hard,” Saine said. “They talked to people in their caucus. We literally walked to their doors of their office and checked them off. ‘Are you a yes?’ ‘Are you a no?’ ‘Are you a maybe, or you could be there?’ ‘What do we need to do to help you get there?’ ”
Cooperation carries sports betting to victory
In the end, it paid off for those who support legal sports betting in North Carolina. In a country never more divided politically than it is now, the cooperation seen in North Carolina was a breath of fresh air. People forget that government should work the way it worked in North Carolina during the sports betting journey.
It’s not the first time, and it won’t be the last that bipartisan cooperation wins the day in North Carolina. There will always be partisan debates on abortion, budgets and education spending. North Carolina has shown, however, that sports betting does not have to be the partisan issue it has become in other states.
Collaboration in North Carolina has produced a regulated online sports betting market that protects consumers and generates revenue for the state. Sports fans in North Carolina won’t have to turn to illegal offshore books to bet on their favorite teams. The state will now capture tax revenue on bets that were happening anyway.
It will take the same bipartisan harmony to expand legal gambling in North Carolina further.
Image: Gary D. Robertson / AP photo