RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) – The path for additional legalized casinos in North Carolina could become clearer next week when House Republicans are scheduled to meet privately to determine whether there’s enough support to include expanded gaming in the state budget.
House Speaker Tim Moore (R-Cleveland) says his party’s members will caucus upon returning after the Labor Day holiday to gauge support but added that a formal proposal still has not been shared with legislators to consider.
“At the end of the day, we haven’t had a definitive proposal laid on the table for caucus members to discuss, for them to weigh in one way or another. It’s all been a conceptual discussion,” he said.
The discussions have centered on creating entertainment districts that could include casinos and a variety of other amenities. They would be located in Rockingham, Nash and Anson counties along with a fourth casino allowed on Lumbee tribal land. Republican legislative leaders also have discussed legalizing video lottery terminals statewide as part of the plan.
Moore said lawmakers who represent the counties where the casinos would go have indicated they support the idea.
“I think it’s well thought out. And, I like the fact that it’s not about gaming as much as it is about economic development. It’s about these entertainment districts,” said Moore. “Where it’s the right place for the community, where it’s the right fit and makes sense, why not have it as another option?”
Based on where budget talks stand, Republicans are targeting the week of Sept. 11 for votes.
Rep. Jason Saine (R-Lincoln), a top budget writer in the House, said on Friday he had still not seen a final proposal on expanded gaming ahead of next week’s discussion.
Senate leader Phil Berger (R-Rockingham) has been one of the leading proponents for creating the entertainment districts, seeing them as an opportunity to bring jobs to rural areas that have struggled to attract them.
A recent poll by the conservative John Locke Foundation found 55 percent of voters would support legalizing additional casinos. However, nearly one-in-four voters said they want the ability to vote on the issue through a referendum.
A separate poll limited just to likely Republican primary voters found a majority of them (53 percent) oppose the idea.
Republican leaders have gotten pushback from some members.
Rep. Neal Jackson (R-Moore/Randolph) has been vocal about his opposition, tweeting Friday, “In the midst of an opioid epidemic and a law enforcement shortage, now’s not the time for casinos.”
The new fiscal year began July 1 with no new budget in place. Republicans have continued to hold meetings since then in an attempt to resolve various disagreements they had about what should be included.
They say they’ve reached consensus on key issues like how much to cut state income taxes and how high the raises should be for teachers and state workers. They have not revealed what those amounts are.
Sen. Jim Burgin (R-Harnett), who voted against a separate bill earlier this year to legalize mobile sports betting, says he’s concerned about the potential for expanded gaming to be included in the budget and is waiting to see what House Republicans decide in their caucus meeting.
Regardless of what happens with that issue, he says he’s optimistic the General Assembly will be in a position to vote on the budget by the middle of September.
“I feel really good about it. I think we’re winding some things down. We need to get it done,” he said.
Gov. Roy Cooper (D-North Carolina) says a proposal for expanded gaming should be considered separate from the budget. While he’s open to the idea, he says he’s been frustrated by the lack of details that have been made public.
“This needs to be done openly and in the public with input from all parts of the state. And, number two, it needs to be voted on separately,” he said. “It’s not a replacement for giving tax breaks to the wealthy and the corporations. It’s not going to even come close.”