RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) – State lawmakers seeking to legalize sports betting in North Carolina said Thursday they hope to hold votes on a bill to make it legal as early as next year as it’s argued to not be gambling.  

The House Commerce Committee approved the bill in a 12-4 vote Thursday, as legislators in support of it continue discussions to try to find a compromise that would ultimately pass both the House and Senate. 

“It happens in offices and really across the state. People are doing this and doing it right now illegally,” Rep. Jason Saine (R-Lincoln) said.  

North Carolina allows sports betting on tribal lands only. Meanwhile, Tennessee and Virginia have both legalized it, and Saine said North Carolina’s bill is modeled on what Virginia has done. 

While there’s been bipartisan support for it, there’s also been bipartisan opposition. 

The bill passed the Senate in August on a 26-19 vote, with Republican Senate leader Phil Berger taking the rare step of bringing a bill to the floor for a vote that most in his party opposed. 

On Thursday, Rep. Jon Hardister (R-Guilford), who is backing the bill, told the committee, “It’s not gambling. You can analyze sports. You can analyze the data.” 

When asked about that later, he said, “Let me clarify that. I would say it’s not gambling in the typical sense… It’s not so much a game of chance, it’s a game of skill.” 

Some House members said they’re opposed to the idea because it likely would lead to more people taking part.  

“It is a wild expansion of gambling in North Carolina,” Rep. Deb Butler (D-New Hanover) said. “I think that it is clear to me that it is going to affect those that can arguably least afford it.” 

She continued, “I’m not a Puritan by any stretch of the imagination, but I just feel like this is not good for North Carolina.”

Some Republicans also opposed the bill.

Rep. Jay Adams (R-Catawba) said, “I saw families destroyed by gambling.” 

He brought up the North Carolina Education Lottery and questioned whether money generated from legalizing sports betting would truly benefit schools, as some of the bill’s sponsors have said they want to target the money toward education.  

“What you see is not always what you get when it comes to gambling, and for that matter for a lot of legislation,” he said. “When the government becomes addicted to such things as this, it’s very hard for them to untangle themselves.” 

Nonpartisan staff at the General Assembly have estimated that if passed, the proposal would generate $8 million to $24 million annually for the state, causing some legislators to suggest that the state should be taking in more than that. Republicans have proposed a budget this year of $25.7 billion. 

“My own mother doesn’t like this bill,” Sen. Jim Perry (R-Lenoir), one of the leading advocates for the bill in the Senate, told the committee. 

He brought up the recent budget debate and pointed out that lawmakers often ask to be able to fund more things than the state can afford. 

“Looking around at all the fiscal conservatives in the room that I know, and I know to be fiscal conservatives, but I also know you turned in a number of requests on that budget that we’re working on right now,” he said. 

Ches McDowell, who represents various professional sports leagues, told lawmakers that as other states move forward with legalizing and regulating sports wagering, North Carolina could be at a competitive disadvantage as those organizations decide where to move teams or host events. 

“At the end of the day, they’re businesses. It’s about profit,” he said. “So, they’re going to look at where’s the most profitable. Right now, North Carolina is falling behind.”

Rep. Saine said he does not expect the bill to pass before the end of this year.

He said he wanted legislators to talk more about it in the coming months with the goal of passing a bill during the spring short session.