A Wednesday email sent from House Speaker Tim Moore to Republican lawmakers signaled the end of gambling expansion through the state’s long-overdue budget bill.
In the email, Moore told House Republicans that a budget that includes casino and video lottery terminal expansion would not go forward unless Moore could count on at least 61 republican votes.
“As you can see,” Moore’s email, obtained by WCNC-17, reads, “there are not 61 Republicans willing to vote for the budget if it includes gaming.”
This email sounds the death knell for North Carolina casino expansion. The initiative underwent a tortuous summer of speculative planning that gained momentum in the wake of Gov. Cooper signing online sports betting into law.
NC Casino expansion Progressed down a contentious path
The contentious pathway for casino expansion began well before a draft casino bill, which made room for four casinos, surfaced in mid July. Senate Republicans drafted the proposal in the hopes that House lawmakers would approve it and then add it to the state budget bill.
Before any of those moves were made, Greater Carolina, a conservative commission of “pro-free market” leaders across the state, released a Spectrum Gaming study.
The study, published in late March, explored the potential for economic growth through a number of gaming avenues, including commercial casinos. Greater Carolina specifically called for an analysis of three casino sites, in Anson, Nash and Rockingham counties, because of those sites’ abilities to “attract out-of-state revenues.”
The concern at the time appeared to be the way North Carolina was bleeding gaming revenue to neighboring states.
Returning to the July draft casino bill, Anson, Nash and Rockingham, while not named in the bill, became the implied locations for casino expansion, but now for the stated reason that the bill “promoted tourism in rural counties.”
Further, as Moore told reporters in August, the draft bill would not require a referendum in those counties to approve casino expansion. However, Moore believed that they would support it.
Moore’s beliefs proved unfounded as all three counties held some form of public forum where people expressed their opposition to casinos, or, at least, their preference that the issue was put to a public vote.
Some of these people made their way to Raleigh this week to protest outside of the state house while republicans caucused over casino expansion.
Campaign contributions from gaming interests raised red flags
Another bend in the path to casino expansion involved reports of out-of-state gaming interests funding campaigns of key lawmakers who supported casino expansion.
One such company, The Cordish Cos., a Maryland-based casino developer, was found by the Carolina Public Press to have spent around $35,000 on legal campaign contributions to nine NC lawmakers in the 2022 election cycle.
Adding fuel to the fire, Bob Hall, a political watchdog and former executive director of Democracy North Carolina, identified 38 gambling-related companies that donated $500,000 in small amounts to lawmakers in an effort to pass legal online sports betting and other forms of gambling expansion.
While all contributions cited were legal, they led many to believe that gambling expansion was being “bought” by out-of-state interests.
What this means for North Carolina casino expansion in 2024
Gov. Cooper indicated in early August that casino and VLT expansion may not be a good fit for the state’s budget bill, that “it’s the kind of thing that should be run separately.”
While it took lawmakers another month of public protests and some bad press to get there, it appears they’ve also reached Cooper’s prescient conclusion.
This means two important things for the next legislative session.
First, stand-alone casino legislation will certainly get a strong push from lawmakers. Based on a July NCSharp survey, which found that 45% of respondents support casino expansion, the legislative push will have public support.
Whether it will require a public referendum before development can begin is a question NCSharp will follow closely. We also want to know whether the state will maintain the language of this year’s draft casino bill that gave the rights to develop all three commercial casinos to a single developer or revise the bill to allow multiple developers to bid on casino sites.
Second, lawmakers will likely be pulled in two different directions by VLT and icasino lobbyists. The two industries, offering similar mobile-gaming products, are strange bedfellows. With the potential that icasino has for state revenue, North Carolinians can expect to hear a lot more about online casino gaming heading into the 2024 legislative season.
For now, we can put all the static around casino expansion in 2023 behind us, and turn our attention squarely to the upcoming launch of online sports betting some time in the first half of 2024.