Supporters of bringing commercial casino gaming to North Carolina this year finally folded their hand Tuesday evening as legislative leaders announced a final budget deal that excluded a proposal to build four gaming venues in the state as well as plans for video gaming terminals. In the end, it was probably for the best.
A deal that had been shrouded in secrecy for a long time was being blamed, in part, for the North Carolina General Assembly being 11 weeks late on delivering a budget. It took another hit this week after it was reported gaming proponents wanted to tie casino legalization with funding for an already-agreed-to expansion of the state’s Medicaid program.
Speaking to reporters in the state capitol, Senate President Pro Tempore Phil Berger, who was the biggest supporter for casinos, lamented that budget talks evolved to where “the facts were almost beside the point” and he finally realized the votes were not going to come.
“It's my belief that the emotion got the better of the discussion, and it was just time for us to get the other things taken care of,” Berger said.
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Loss Not A Wipeout
Here’s the thing about folding. Yes, it’s a loss, but as long as you didn’t lose everything, you’re still able to play the next hand. Berger took a hit that was substantial, but he should still be in a position next year to bring that matter back for discussion.
There will likely need to be changes made to the casino proposal. Berger touted the casinos as “rural tourism districts” that would spur economic development, bring millions of dollars in investments and create thousands of jobs in three of the state’s most disadvantaged counties. That included Rockingham County, which is in his own district. However, many residents there and in Anson and Nash counties objected to the measure that would not let them have a say in the matter.
Of the four casinos proposed, one was earmarked for the Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina, which for years has sought to receive the same rights as other federally recognized tribal nations. However, concerns were raised that the other three were for one company. The odds-on favorite for those was The Cordish Companies, a Baltimore developer that had donated thousands of dollars to the election campaigns for at least eight state lawmakers.
Recommendations For Moving Forward
So, what should an expanded gaming bill look like the next time around in the North Carolina General Assembly? For starters, the number of casinos seems fine, especially since there are three tribal casinos already in the western and southern parts of the state. However, rather than try to award three to one bidder, the licenses should be separated, which could spur interest from numerous developers and may lead to higher bids. Allowing county residents to approve casino gaming should also be part of any measure.
The next casino bill may also include iGaming as well. State Rep. Jason Saine, who led the effort to legalize NC betting apps earlier this year, has come out calling for online casinos as well. That might get some pushback, but it’s worth including at least initially to gauge interest.
Casino legislation is far from a sure bet for next year, even if some of the changes above are made to the measure. While a majority of Republican House lawmakers support gaming, there’s enough opponents in the caucus to potentially derail it – just as they did this year. Next year’s also a gubernatorial election, and some of the Republican candidates in the race have come out against casinos. If one of those candidates wins the GOP primary next March, that might influence how some lawmakers act.
Still, next year presents the opportunity for a new hand, and it might be a winning one if the cards are played right.