North Carolina lawmakers, fixated on including commercial casinos and video lottery terminals in the state budget, risk alienating many people who otherwise support gambling expansion.
As a result of this “casino question,” Speaker Tim Moore and the rest of the House, per WRAL.com, have postponed their votes for the rest of the week, cleared their calendars and gone home out of frustration or protest – or a combination of both – guaranteeing that the state will not advance a long-overdue budget for another week.
The walkout was precipitated by State House and Senate lawmakers who cannot agree on including North Carolina casinos and VLTs in the budget. This prolonged discussion has caused a two-month delay for a budget bill that includes funding for Medicaid and school employee pay raises. Further, it sends the message to the 500,000 or more North Carolinians who need that funding that gambling stands in their way.
According to an NCSharp survey, the reality is that many North Carolinians want casino expansion. But pitting it against vital civic and social programs is not how to get there.
The casino votes just aren’t there yet. Congress persists
That response irked Sen. Leader Phil Berger.
He accused Moore and House lawmakers of “moving the goalposts,” imploring them to make good on a prior budget agreement to include casinos in the budget if the initiative had majority Republican support. While Moore indicated that he could find majority Republican support in the House, those votes were insufficient to muster 61 votes needed to pass legislation in the lower chamber.
The widening gap between the two chambers around the casino question led House lawmakers to drop everything and head home for the week.
Berger is spinning Moore’s perceived reneging on their agreement as a matter of principle.
“At this point, it’s not the casinos,” Berger told WRAL. “It is whether or not I can go back to my members and tell them that I have an understanding with the leadership in the House on a particular issue. It doesn’t matter what the issue is. When I cannot do that, then it makes it very, very difficult for us to get any kind of business done. So it’s larger than just casinos.”
For as honorable as his intentions sound, it’s not going to count for much with the teachers whose lives are made a notch more stressful or the person with a disability whose prescription drug costs soar.
Maybe those people wouldn’t head to casinos or play video lottery in the first place, but making their quality of life a casualty in the casino expansion debate is a huge, avoidable mistake.
The conspicuous late-game push for casino expansion
Casino expansion appeared to be a non-starter in the North Carolina General Assembly this year.
Stand-alone casino bills made no progress this legislative session. A casino expansion was floated as part of Rep. Jason Saine’s sports betting bill, but that was shot down. It seemed 2023 would be the year for sports betting and only sports betting.
Then, in early July, in the waning hours of the legislative session, a draft budget proposal that included commercial casino expansion and VLTs emerged from the Senate.
The sites for the casinos had been drawn up in advance. They included the counties of Anson, Nash and Rockingham, Berger’s home county, and the provision that a single developer would be selected to develop all three casinos.
Why would the state hand three casinos to a single developer?
That question was partially answered when news broke that The Cordish Companies, a Maryland casino developer, had petitioned to re-zone a parcel of land in Rockingham County for commercial use (Read: a casino). Further confirmation came when a political watchdog released campaign donations from the 2022 North Carolina state elections, showing that The Cordish Cos. had donated to nine NC lawmakers, some invested in casino expansion.
Protests ensued after casino plans detailed
Protests and public forums in all three counties ensued. Many county and city leaders disapproved that the casino proposal did not require a local voter referendum to approve casino expansion. Others felt like out-of-state interests were buying their way into the state.
Amid it all, Moore attempted to reassure the media that his staff had contacted the designated counties, and they supported the initiative. People arriving at the Capitol to protest the House Republican caucus last week indicated that Moore’s statements weren’t entirely accurate.
The haste with which the casino proposal has become the lynchpin in the state budget has only exacerbated these feelings, even leading Gov. Roy Cooper to caution that the budget may not be the best vehicle to legalize commercial casinos.
North Carolinians support casinos, but that could change
NCSharp conducted a survey finding that 45% of North Carolinians supported casino expansion in the state while 29% opposed it and 26% were undecided.
Our respondents cited the revenue generated from gambling expansion as the number one reason to expand the industry. They also had their qualms, gambling addiction being a primary concern.
The data indicated a public open to new revenue streams but cautious of how to expand legal gambling in a safe and well-regulated manner.
What the North Carolina General Assembly has done in the month since our survey was conducted shows a haste and single-mindedness towards gambling expansion that is entirely unnecessary.
The longer the House and Senate dig in their heels over casino expansion, the more they will expose a lack of propriety around expanding legal gaming in the state. Further, they will discredit the legal, regulated gaming industry – casinos, sports betting and possibly future online casinos – in the eyes of North Carolinians who still have yet to place their first legal sports bet.
The best thing lawmakers can do is to shelve the casino question for 2023 and return to it in 2024 in the form of stand-alone casino legislation. Let a casino bill go through the natural legislative cycle. While it may not quell casino opponents, it will show a concerted interest in taking a more measured approach to a significant form of economic expansion in the state.