North Carolina’s chances of expanding gambling “better than 50-50”, says Senate leader

A top North Carolina senator has said that the chances for approving more state-sanctioned gambling are “better than 50-50,” expressing optimism on Thursday that a further expansion could be worked out before legislators end this year’s regular session later this summer.

The General Assembly hasn’t adjourned, as House and Senate Republicans negotiate sticking points on a state government budget that was supposed to take effect earlier this month. But chamber leaders also continue to talk about whether they should allow casinos on non-tribal lands, authorize and regulate video gambling machines, or both.

As reported by Associated Press, when asked about the odds that legislation allowing more gambling would reach Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper’s desk this summer, within or separate from a budget agreement, Senate leader Phil Berger told reporters: “I’d say better than 50-50.”

While the state currently is home to three casinos, they are operated by two American Indian tribes as commercial gambling remains off-limits. Legislators, including Berger, are worried about casinos that have recently opened in Virginia, near the North Carolina border, which are already drawing North Carolinians to their gaming offerings.

Phil Berger

Berger discussed this situation with reporters, citing the recent opening of a new casino in Danville, Virginia, about 25 miles from his hometown of Eden. According to the Senate leader, who traveled to Danville earlier this month, about 80% of the vehicles at the casino’s parking lot had North Carolina license plates, as residents cross state lines to gamble in Virginia.

North Carolina casino proponents believe that authorizing such facilities in the Peach State would help neutralize out-of-state gambling, while also driving tax revenue for state and local government coffers. Backers of gambling expansion also argue casinos could help economically disadvantaged areas, where the venues would create jobs for the local communities.

“Gaming is already taking place in North Carolina, and gaming is taking place on the border of North Carolina that is pulling money out of North Carolina,” Berger further told reporters, as per AP. The legislator also added that a new additional revenue stream would have “multiple benefits” for the state.

Casino gambling coming to NC?

Rep. Jason Saine of Lincoln County, a chief House budget negotiator, said Wednesday he didn’t know how his House colleagues would respond to the plan of adding casinos and video gambling to the state’s legal industry because the Senate hadn’t yet provided a proposal.

Such a proposal would include a number of key details on how the expansion would be carried out, including how many casinos would be permitted, whether construction would be contingent on local referendums, and what the state’s revenue cut would be. 

Rep. Jason Saine

Borth Berger and Saine confirmed this week that differences remain over some points of the state budget, and acknowledged a deal may not be finalized until August. Saine pointed out that the fate of casino expansion isn’t holding up the budget, but rather the speed at which Republicans lower taxes and what fiscal guardrails are in place while it’s carried out. However, additional gambling revenue could recalibrate the level of cuts with which House members could feel comfortable.

The authorization of further gambling this year could see an obstacle in social conservatives and certain liberals within the General Assembly who argue that the benefits of casinos are not worth the harm that gambling addiction causes families and children. Advancing more gambling this summer could be a bridge too far for some lawmakers.

However, pro-gambling forces did manage to gather enough support to pass sports gambling earlier this year, when the legislature enacted a law authorizing betting on sporting events and horse racing statewide. The plan was soon after signed into law by Cooper to public fanfare.

The landmark move is the legislature’s largest expansion of gambling since the creation of a state lottery in 2005, and the first wagers are expected in the first half of 2024. Casino gambling proponents believe momentum could be further extended to new gambling options, but much remains to be seen.