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Senate leader folds his hand. Casinos will not be part of North Carolina’s budget.


Senate leader folds his hand. Casinos will not be part of North Carolina’s budget.

Sep 20, 2023 | 7:15 am ET
By Clayton Henkel
Senate leader folds his hand. Casinos will not be part of North Carolina’s budget.
Senate Leader Phil Berger (Screengrab from NCGA video)

Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger (R-Rockingham) rarely loses a hand in the political games that play such a prominent role in the work of North Carolina General Assembly.

But on Tuesday, Berger seemed to abide by the admonition in the famous Kenny Rogers’ song, “The Gambler”: “You gotta know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em.”

At an evening joint appearance with House Speaker Tim Moore, the Senate leader announced that he is, for the time being, abandoning his full court press to greatly expand casino gambling in the state.

Last week when the most conservative members of his own party balked at including four casinos in the state budget, an idea was hatched to pass a standalone bill tying Medicaid expansion to the casino legislation.

Casino supporters believed the lure of Medicaid expansion would win over enough Democrats to make up for the Republicans who were willing to vote “no.”

Democrats were not swayed. On Monday, the minority party in each chamber issued strongly worded statements of opposition. By Tuesday afternoon, Governor Roy Cooper called out the backroom casino plan.

“The Republican supermajority is breaking their promise to expand Medicaid and instead are using it to extort a shady, sole source casino deal that many of their own members find suspicious,” said Cooper. “Democratic legislators are rightfully disgusted and strongly oppose this scheme.”

In a late-night press conference at the legislature, Berger conceded the casinos and video lottery terminals (VLTs) would not advance as outlined under House Bill 149.

“Medicaid expansion will still be contingent on the budget becoming law,” said Berger. “The conference budget will not include any of the VLTs or the rural tourism districts. We think this is the best, the most prudent way for us to move forward.”

Asked whether the announcement meant no casinos at all or just not in the budget bill, Berger was resigned.

“Not in the budget, I do not see us voting on those at any point in coming weeks.”

The Senate leader suggested that heated opposition to the casino concept negated any efforts to win over House and Senate members who might have been on the fence.

“It was just pretty clear that the facts were almost beside the point as to what those proposals would do for rural areas, and the emotion that was actually permeating every bit of discussion,” Berger told reporters.

A week earlier it was Berger who showed his emotion in accusing Speaker Tim Moore of failing to honor an agreement they had on the gambling proposal.

Berger did not bring up that dispute in their joint press event. Instead, he questioned why some who supported a sports wagering bill earlier in the session would turn their backs on casinos.

“I don’t know why those same folks had a real problem with us moving forward with some sort of gaming that would actually create jobs, particularly in rural areas,” said Berger.

In addition to Berger’s home county of Rockingham, casinos were envisioned for Anson and Nash, with a fourth operated by the Lumbee tribe.

“I think people will ask the question as to why certain gaming is okay, but casino gaming is something that is just totally off,” he said.

For his part, Speaker Tim Moore said with the matter settled, they could focus on a $30 billion spending plan that includes “absolute record investment” in rural infrastructure, water and sewer and education.

Both chambers are expected to vote on the 600-plus page budget bill this Thursday and Friday.

As for whether that’s the end of the issue entirely or whether casinos could emerge in a subsequent short-session, Berger offered this:

“I will continue to be supportive and will continue to be working towards trying to get that enacted into law in North Carolina.”

Despite its apparent appropriateness in the moment, neither he nor Moore alluded to a somewhat less well-known line in Rogers’ famous song: “If you’re gonna play the game, boy You gotta learn to play it right.”