Casino and sports betting expansion has strong support in North Carolina. However, there are pockets of voters in the state who are vehemently opposed to launching more land-based gambling venues.
One of those opposing pockets is the constituency of Senate President Phil Berger (R-Rockingham). Berger is one of the strongest advocates for expanding the number of retail casinos in the state. However, the end of 2023 has been rocky for Berger, who has been under fire on several fronts.
Berger is one of the state’s most powerful politicians and the longest-serving state legislative leader in the nation. The hostility toward North Carolina casino expansion in Berger’s district, missteps in a failed casino-related budget addendum, and other issues have not been good for him. Berger is “vulnerable to a Republican primary challenge in 2024” according to Public Policy Polling, a polling firm affiliated with the Democratic Party.
Not only do voters in his district oppose casino expansion, but statewide, citizens want term limits on his position.
Constituents not happy with Berger’s stance on legal gambling
Berger, who was first elected in 2000, currently represents Rockingham County and parts of Guilford County in the north-central region of the state. He was a strong supporter of the recently passed sports and horse racing betting law.
He is also in favor of adding more retail casinos in the state and legalizing video lottery terminals. Specifically, he pushed for adding three commercial casinos with one to be constructed in his home county. Plans for the casinos included an overall investment of $1.5 billion.
However, a vocal group of citizens in Rockingham County is vehemently opposed to building a gambling venue in the area on a 192-acre plot. The majority of Republican voters in Berger’s district do not want more casinos according to a recent poll from Public Policy Polling. Highlights of the poll identify:
– Sixty percent of voters likely to cast a ballot in the 2024 primary when Berger is up for re-election oppose his casino expansion proposal.
– Only 28% support his plan.
– Only 30% of those voters said they would vote to re-elect him.
– Forty-five percent of voters want someone else in his position.
– Disapproval for Berger’s job performance is at 41%.
– His approval rating is only 26%.
During a Rockingham County Commission meeting in August, resident after resident took to the podium to voice their concerns about plans for rezoning land to allow for construction. Concerns ranged from the possible effects of casino traffic on the tranquil small-town atmosphere to religious-based resistance. The meeting was well-attended with overflow rooms set up to accommodate the crowd.
Some residents felt that Sen. Berger and some commissioners had not been forthcoming enough about casino expansion in their backyard. A former member of the county’s planning board told WRAL that casino expansion “smells of skunk” and “stinks to high heaven.”
Anti-casino proponent and Rockingham County Sheriff Sam Page also spoke. Page, who is running for lieutenant governor, joined a chorus of voters and politicians who didn’t like recent maneuverings led by Berger and Moore to tether casino expansion to an increase in funding for Medicaid in the recently passed state budget. Page, along with members of both sides of the political aisle, including Gov. Roy Cooper, blasted the tactic.
Voters want term limits for Berger’s position
Berger became the Senate president in 2011. With over 20 years in the General Assembly, voters are very familiar with Berger. However, based on a recent statewide poll, that is too much familiarity.
A poll conducted by the Raleigh-based conservative think tank Civitas revealed that 85% of voters surveyed believe that the leaders in the legislature should have term limits. Only 4.9% of voters polled believed there should be no limits.
House Speaker Tim Moore (R-Cleveland), another staunch supporter of gambling expansion, is also a long-term leader. He began leading the House of Representatives in 2015.
“I think it’s a really interesting sign for both Senator Phil Berger and Speaker Tim Moore that you see overwhelming support for limiting the time that someone can spend in the jobs that they have had record-setting terms in,” Mitch Kokai, a senior political analyst for the conservative John Locke Foundation, told WNCT.
Berger plans to stay the course, could continue NC casino push
Meanwhile, Berger has no plans to retire from politics soon.
“I’ve got no plans to stop,” he said last fall. “I enjoy what I get to do. I’m in good health, knock on wood,” he said. “As long as my members and colleagues see fit to let me do what they give me the authority to do, I’m happy to keep doing it.”
He also claimed that a decision to walk back support for a casino amendment to the state budget had nothing to do with voter opposition or the impending redrawing of electoral districts for the General Assembly. His current term ends January 1, 2025.
“Who knows what’s going to happen as far as that’s concerned? That was not something that really factored into the decisions that I made.”
Berger has not voiced any plans for putting forward casino expansion during next year’s General Assembly session.
Image Credit: Hannah Schoenbaum / AP Images