New casinos, video gambling in NC? Lawmakers look for answer as many go to Virginia, other states

Friday, July 21, 2023
Patrons pack Virginia casino on opening day
The new casino in Danville, Virginia, was packed on opening day Monday with people, many from the Triangle, trying their luck at slot machines and live gaming tables.

RALEIGH, N.C. -- As many as four new casinos as well as video gambling machines could be authorized in North Carolina under proposals now being discussed by legislators, the top General Assembly leaders said on Thursday.

House Speaker Tim Moore and Senate leader Phil Berger told reporters separately about the ideas, which they said have yet to reach the level of formal legislation to be voted upon.

But details about those ideas and some potential bill language are being exchanged among lawmakers, the Republican leaders said, reflecting an upgrade in negotiations that have waited in the wings for months during this year's legislative session.

The negotiations appear intertwined with extended talks over a final two-year state budget that was supposed to be enacted by July 1. Votes on any outstanding legislation from this year's work session - including any budget agreement and overrides of Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper's vetoes - now are not likely to happen until at least early August, the lawmakers said.

"I would anticipate that if at the point in time when we get a budget done, we will have made a decision about (gambling) as well," Berger said.

The state currently has three casinos, operated by the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians or the Catawba Indian Nation. But legislators -- Berger among others - have become worried about state and local governments losing revenue to other states that are opening non-tribal casinos, particularly Virginia on its southern border. One just opened in Danville, Virginia, about 25 miles (40 kilometers) from where Berger lives in Rockingham County.

WATCH | Triangle residents flock to new Virginia casino

Proposals would permit casinos that are part of "entertainment districts" - that could include hotels and restaurants as well as residential and commercial development - in Anson, Nash and Rockingham counties, Moore and Berger said. Allowing the Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina to run a casino in eastern North Carolina is also being discussed, they said.

The Lumbees, which are concentrated in Robeson County, haven't been able to operate their own casino because they've lacked the extent of federal tribal recognition necessary to do so. The tribe could provide gambling through a state licensing process instead, Moore said.

A study by a gambling research group estimated commercial casinos built in Nash, Anson and Rockingham counties could generate almost $1.7 billion in gross wagering revenue annually and hundreds of millions in taxes. Moore and Berger also mention the jobs that would be created.

A development company that has connections to a casino developer is already seeking to rezone some Rockingham County land.

The legalization of video gambling machines statewide could follow a House bill that received a hearing in May. That measure would direct the state Lottery Commission to regulate the machines, allowing them in places with alcohol beverage licenses. The state would get a cut equal to a portion of net machine revenues. Efforts have gone back two decades to stamp out illegal video gambling machines sitting inside sweepstakes parlors.

North Carolina legislators already enacted a massive expansion of legalized gambling this year by passing a law authorizing betting on sports and horse racing statewide. The first wagers are expected in the first half of 2024.

RELATED | North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper signs sports betting bill

Opposition to sports betting came from a coalition of social conservatives and liberal lawmakers who lament the results of adult gambling addiction upon families and children. The North Carolina Family Policy Council is now asking its allies to contact legislators and urge them to block more casinos. Pro-gambling forces also have many registered legislative lobbyists.

Moore argued Thursday there's more support for the casino and video gambling proposal than there was for the sports betting law.

"The response that we're hearing from legislators from those regions has been supportive because they see it as a way to really spur the economy of their region," Moore said. It's unclear whether the final product would require formal backing of a casino project by local voters, such as through a referendum.

Berger said last week the chances that more state-sanctioned gambling would make it to Cooper's desk this summer was "better than 50-50." Berger took a pragmatic tone Thursday.

"I don't know that that's something we'll be able to do," Berger said. "Obviously, it's something that I've been supportive of in concept. We'll see."

Cooper, who would be asked to sign bills approved in the coming weeks, kept his focus Thursday on the delayed budget. He criticized Republicans for failing to hold recorded votes this week and to pass a completed spending plan so an expansion of Medicaid coverage to hundreds of thousands of low-income adults could be implemented. Lawmakers have veto-proof majorities in the House and Senate.

"Republican leaders have two supermajorities and no one to blame for this impasse but themselves," he said in a news release.

The governor signed NC sports betting House Bill 347 at the Spectrum Center in Charlotte.