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North Carolina Senate leader Phil Berger: chances for approving more sanctioned gambling 'better than 50-50'

NC Senator Phil Berger speaks during a press conference on April 5, 2023 during which Rep. Tricia Cotham announced she is leaving the Democratic Party to join the Republican Party.
Matt Ramey
for WUNC
NC Senator Phil Berger speaks during a press conference on April 5, 2023.

One of North Carolina's most powerful legislators expressed optimism Thursday that a further expansion of state-sanctioned gambling will be worked out before legislators end this year's regular business later this summer.

The General Assembly hasn't adjourned while House and Senate Republicans negotiate sticking points on a two-year state government budget that was supposed to take effect July 1. Chamber leaders also continue to talk about whether they should permit casinos on non-tribal lands, authorize and regulate video gambling machines, or both, Senate leader Phil Berger told reporters.

When asked to evaluate the chances that legislation allowing some combination of new gambling would reach Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper's desk this summer within or separate from a budget agreement, Berger replied: “I’d say better than 50-50."

“It's a serious discussion,” he added.

The WUNC Politics Podcast is a free-flowing discussion of what we're hearing in the back hallways of the General Assembly and on the campaign trail across North Carolina.

The legislature already enacted a law last month that authorizes betting on sports and horse racing statewide, with the first wagers expected in the first half of 2024. It marked the legislature's largest expansion of gambling since creating a state lottery in 2005. Cooper signed the sports gambling bill into law to public fanfare.

The state currently has three casinos, operated by two American Indian tribes. But legislators, in particular Berger, are worried about casinos that have opened recently in Virginia near the North Carolina border and where North Carolina residents are betting.

The latest opened in Danville, Virginia, roughly 25 miles from Berger's hometown of Eden. Berger said he traveled to Danville this month and estimates 80% of the vehicles in the casino parking lot had North Carolina license plates. Authorizing North Carolina casinos is seen by supporters as a way to neutralize out-of-state gambling, generate revenues for state and local government coffers, and help economically depressed areas where venues would create jobs.

“The 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 said, adding that a new additional revenue stream “has multiple benefits.”

Rep. Jason Saine of Lincoln County, a chief House budget-negotiator who also shepherded this year's sports gambling legislation, said Wednesday he didn't know how House colleagues would respond to the idea of additional casinos and video gambling because the Senate hadn't yet provided a proposal. That could include how many casinos would be permitted, whether construction would be contingent on local referendums and what the state's financial cut would be.

Berger and Saine confirmed this week that budget differences remain over the extent of a tax-reduction package and how to distribute reserves for items such as capital projects and economic development. And they both acknowledged a deal may not be finalized until August.

Saine insisted the fate of casino expansion isn't holding up the state budget, but rather the speed at which Republicans lower taxes and what fiscal guardrails are in place while it's carried out. But additional gambling revenues could recalibrate the level of cuts with which House members could feel comfortable.

The Senate's version of the budget wanted to accelerate the ratcheting-down of the individual income tax rate so that it would reach 3.99% in 2025 and not 2027 as current law directs. And senators wanted to lower it further over time to 2.49% in 2030. The House plan would have lowered slightly further the rate already planned for 2024 but the trajectory would still hit 3.99% in 2027.

To ensure fiscal stability, Saine said, the House wants to block deeper rate cuts unless the state meets certain revenue levels. The Senate has concerns about "trigger" provisions with high benchmarks that could never be met, Berger said. But Saine acknowledged that locating additional revenue streams could ease such requirements. “It is much harder to sell an expedited tax reform process without the backfill of revenue," he said.

An obstacle to the authorization of further gambling this year also could be a coalition of social conservatives and certain liberals within the General Assembly who say it's not worth the harm that gambling addiction causes families and children.

A similar bloc helped derail sports gambling in the House last year, but it was overtaken by pro-gambling forces in 2023. Advancing more gambling this summer could be a bridge too far for some lawmakers.

More gambling options would create more gamblers and “just exacerbate all of the social problems that come along with gambling," John Rustin with the anti-gambling North Carolina Family Policy Council said Thursday. "Just because other states make poor choices doesn't mean that North Carolina should do the same."

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