RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) – The state Senate’s top Republican said Thursday the odds are “better than 50/50” that the legislature will pass a bill authorizing more casinos by the end of the summer.
The comments from Senate leader Phil Berger (R-Rockingham) as he and other leading Republicans continue negotiations on the state budget. The new fiscal year began July 1 with no new budget in place.
“It’s something that can create a fairly substantial additional revenue stream. That revenue stream right now is headed north into Virginia,” Sen. Berger said.
While Republicans have discussed possible locations for casinos, Berger said they have not settled on a specific proposal.
“I don’t know that there’s anything that has the i’s dotted and the t’s crossed,” he said.
The discussion of authorizing additional casinos comes as Virginia has moved over the last few years to open casinos along the North Carolina state line.
The most recent one opened in Danville in May in a temporary location as Ceasars continues construction on its resort. Sen. Berger traveled there about a week ago and noticed a significant number of license plates in the parking lot were from North Carolina.
“I’d say it’s 80 percent of the cars parked there are from North Carolina. So, the gaming is already taking place,” he said. “I think creating, in North Carolina, that additional revenue stream has multiple benefits.”
North Carolina currently has three casinos on tribal lands.
House Speaker Tim Moore (R-Cleveland) previously said lawmakers were discussing creating four “entertainment districts” where casinos would be allowed along with other forms of entertainment, shopping and dining.
He said lawmakers would seek to place them in areas that could use a boost to the local economy. Lawmakers have discussed legalizing video lottery terminals statewide along with the entertainment districts, Moore said.
Republican leaders remain at odds over key provisions in the state budget, including how much to reduce the state’s personal income tax rate and how quickly to do that.
The current rate is 4.75 percent. Senate Republicans have proposed reducing it incrementally down to 2.49 percent over the next several years.
Sen. Berger said he and House Republicans are discussing putting triggers in place so that the rate would only drop if state revenues reach a certain number. They do not agree on what those triggers should be, Berger said.
Rep. Jason Saine (R-Lincoln), a top budget writer in the House and one of the leading proponents this year of legalizing mobile sports betting, said it’s been difficult to gauge what level of interest there is among House Republicans for additional casinos because there’s been no specific proposal to share with them.
“Without the language, it’s really just an exercise in futility to say who’s for it and against it,” he said.
Rep. Saine stressed that the discussion about gambling legislation is not what’s holding up the state budget.
“We could do tax reform. We could do casinos. We could do them both. But, until we know exactly what they’re going to look like, it is a little difficult,” he said.
Alexandra Sirota, executive director of the left-leaning North Carolina Budget & Tax Center, was critical of the idea of the state further expanding legalized gambling.
“The implications are potentially huge and they’re not good for North Carolinians,” she said. “North Carolinians are going to be pursued by this industry, and that is a problem.”
This week, legislative Democrats criticized Republicans for failing to reach a budget agreement. They noted the delay means that teachers and state employees are starting a new fiscal year without raises and that Medicaid expansion cannot go into effect.
Rep. Wesley Harris (D-Mecklenburg), an economist and candidate for state Treasurer, said he’s concerned about the state being able to afford further tax cuts when the state government is already struggling to hire people and keep them on the job.
“Republicans are huddling in back doors figuring out how they can cut our taxes even more when our state is already struggling to provide the basic needs our state’s citizens depend on,” he said.