RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) – While a proposal to include more legalized gambling in the state budget ultimately failed, Senate leader Phil Berger (R-Rockingham) says he believes the next chance to try to pass it could come during next spring’s session.
Sen. Berger was a leading proponent of a plan to legalize four more casinos as well as video lottery terminals statewide in places like bars and restaurants. As it became clear that gambling was the sole issue holding up passage of the state budget last week, he decided to move forward without it.
“I continue to believe that the arguments for doing what we were proposing are still good arguments and will continue to do what I can to try to move that forward,” he said after that decision.
The gambling proposal faced backlash from some within Berger’s own party as many of the details were unknown to the public and to many lawmakers until earlier this month.
“It was becoming more and more clear to me that the facts were not something that were going to decide what we did with that,” Sen. Berger said.
Berger views the proposal as a way to boost the economy in struggling rural communities. While the final proposal for the casinos did not identify the four specific counties where they would go, Republicans have acknowledged they expect them to end up in: Anson, Rockingham and Nash counties along with a fourth casino on Lumbee tribal land.
The casinos would be part of rural tourism districts that would contain a variety of other amenities. The legislation called for the casino developers in each of those districts to create at least 1,750 jobs and invest at least $500 million.
As Republicans also pushed to lower the state’s personal income tax rate, some opponents of the gambling plan said the GOP was attempting to use that to offset the tax cuts.
“There’s so many things that are going unmet right now. And, to think in the future we have in this budget committed to making more tax cuts available to the wealthy and ignoring those needs is astounding,” said Alexandra Sirota, executive director of the left-leaning NC Budget & Tax Center. “Casino expansion and video gaming machine expansion in every community of the state is not the economic development strategy that North Carolina should be pursuing.”
Sen. Berger said it’s not clear whether he would seek to include the gambling proposal in next year’s budget or pursue it as a standalone bill. He also said it “remains to be seen” whether the opportunity to advance that legislation will indeed present itself next year.
“I think it’s gonna be more difficult than leadership imagines to resuscitate this,” said Meredith College political analyst David McLennan. “Gambling seems to be one of those issues where there is a lot of opposition to it on a lot of different grounds.”
Polling done over the summer showed that a majority of North Carolinians support the idea of allowing additional casinos.
A separate poll conducted last week, and reported on first by CBS 17, showed that in Sen. Berger’s legislative district 60 percent of likely Republican primary voters oppose the casino plan.
“It’s hurt Sen. Berger,” said Doug Isley, who is a member of Citizens for Good Growth in Rockingham County, which organized opposition to the gambling legislation.
Sen. Berger is one of the most powerful politicians in the state and has served in the legislature for over 20 years. He ran unopposed in his Senate primary in 2022. However, Isley said it’s “a certainty” that someone from within the party will challenge him in the spring.
“He pretty much put a nail in his political coffin. I believe, personally, that he might have thought this was his golden parachute and he might go out with a win. But, he hit a stone wall,” Isley said.
When asked about the prospect of a primary challenge, Berger said it was not part of his decision to stop pursuing the gambling proposal last week.
He said, “Who knows what’s going to happen as far as that’s concerned? That was not something that really factored into the decisions that I made.”