House Bill 347, which would legalize online sports betting and horse race wagering in North Carolina, passed its second reading in the Senate on Wednesday on a 38-11 vote.
The second reading, typically where the brunt of the debate occurs, represented the most stringent opposition to HB 347 in the Senate. However, a swift round of floor debate and a quick vote were what most people expected from the chamber that decisively passed a similar measure last session.
The bill is scheduled to receive a third and final reading and vote Thursday. It would then return to the House for concurrence on the Senate’s changes to the bill.
Sen. Perry amends the bill, cleans up language around funding
Sen. Jim Perry, R-Lenoir, the chief proponent of the bill in the Senate, filed the only amendment of the afternoon. It “cleaned up language” around funding at the end of one year and the beginning of the next to ensure the North Carolina Lottery Commission, which, under the bill, will regulate sports betting in North Carolina, could “pay the bills.”
Sen. Tim Moffitt, R-Henderson, who shepherded the bill through three Senate committees this week, endorsed Perry’s amendment, which ultimately passed.
Moffitt then very briefly introduced the bill, indicating that, at that point, the bill needed no further arguments in favor of its passage. He then opened himself up to questioning.
Opposition voices concern but acknowledges the reality
Sen. Jim Burgin, R-Harnett, setting the tone for the floor debate, led off with the statement that he hoped “it’s not true that floor debate doesn’t matter much.” He pled with the chamber to consider the fiscal note on the bill. “Seven billion dollars bet on sports in the fifth year. This is money that could be spent on kids, and it’s being reallocated.”
Burgin also invoked the poor, who he argued would be the target of legal gambling, and he closed with the harrowing biblical image of “gamblers at the foot of Christ on the cross with the dice spattered with his blood.”
Sen. Julie Mayfield, D-Buncombe, turned the argument in opposition toward the “dual mental health and addiction crisis.”
She referenced the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders to remind the chamber that gambling is “similar to substance-related disorders. It’s the only addiction based on behavior and not an outside substance.”
Mayfield’s criticism conveyed that legalizing sports betting would take North Carolina in the wrong direction, such that “we will be back here in five years’ time to stem the harmful tide that legal gambling creates.”
Sen. Lisa Grafstein, D-Wake, the third and final speaker against the bill, provided an analytical breakdown of regulatory holes and blindspots in HB 347.
“The bill doesn’t regulate the industry,” she said, “in a way we would want. No limits to payouts. No regulations around sportsbooks skewing odds. Under the terms of the bill, you can police yourself by what you deem to be ‘commercially reasonable efforts.’ ”
Grafstein’s reference is to language in the bill explaining how online sports book operators must ensure that underage and out-of-state players cannot access North Carolina sportsbooks.
She also argued that the bill “will impose gambling where people don’t want it. An organization, like the ACC, has the burden of proving that gambling would undermine the integrity of their sports. They can’t just say ‘no.’ ”
Arguments in opposition do little to influence the vote
The 38-11 passing margin came in above what was expected, including a flip from Sen. Ralph Hise, who voted no on the bill Tuesday in its Rules Committee hearing.
A third reading will likely represent a mere formality before the bill returns to the lower chamber for concurrence.
The Senate added numerous changes to the bill, including the broadening of the proposed launch date, the addition of horse race betting, increasing the tax rate, and the exclusion of tax deductions for promotional spending (compare the latest NC sports betting promos currently on offer via the link provided).
Rep. Jason Saine, the House sponsor of the bill, has told WRAL-TV that he supports concurrence “with sports betting only. I support the other efforts, but they will need another vehicle.”
Whether the other efforts he’s referencing include parimutuel racing is unclear. In any case, the House will address the Senate changes once the bill clears the Senate. If it concurs with the Senate version, the bill would move on to Gov. Roy Cooper’s desk for a final signature. If, however, the Senate’s changes are a bridge too far, then a more arduous conference committee would try to hammer out the final sticking points.