Gambling on the budget
Published September 14, 2023
By Tom Campbell
The old aphorism was never truer, “laws are like sausages. It’s best not to see them being made.” The big news this week has been the state budget and why, almost three months late, it hasn’t passed.
Casino gambling is the stumbling block. House Speaker Tim Moore announced there weren’t enough votes in his chamber to pass the gambling bill, a proposal that would establish four casinos in our state. Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger strongly favors casino passage. One of them would be in his home county.
Lawmakers took off most of the month of August for a summer vacation. In the interim the Freedom Caucus had time to organize and strategize how they would prevent the passage of gambling. A late August poll taken by the John Locke Foundation found that 54.6 percent strongly or somewhat support casinos, however 46 percent worried that casinos would have unfavorable social consequences. More importantly, almost 76 percent think gambling should be put to a vote of the people, allowing the pros and cons to be aired.
Special interest groups are putting on a full court press. Democracy North Carolina reported that more than $530,650 had been contributed to lawmakers in the first six months of 2023 in support of gambling or marijuana businesses. We don’t know how much more has been expended since July. Has North Carolina become a “pay to play” state?
But Phil Berger was not to be denied and knows how to play hardball. He determined to put the casino legislation inside the state budget, daring those opposing it to either pass the budget with casinos in it or vote against the entire budget. The Freedom caucus revolted, calling his hand.
Speaker Moore repeated he only had 41 sure votes for passage and would not put anything on the floor that he didn’t have the votes to pass. In a move seldom seen in legislative politics, Berger went public in criticizing Moore and the House, saying they had had a secret agreement that casinos would be in the budget and now Moore was reneging. Not so, said the obviously peeved Speaker. He made the agreement with the contingency that he could get enough votes for passage. And he didn’t have them.
Midweek the mood was contentious and gloomy for budget passage. Moore instructed House members to return to their homes, saying a budget wasn’t likely anytime soon.
Why is gambling holding up passage of the budget? Is it just a power play by Berger and casino advocates? Why not just remove the casinos from the budget and get on with it? And no less than Donald Trump, Jr has called national attention to this donnybrook in our state, saying this isn’t the MAGA way.
But the legislators aren’t the only players in this scenario. Governor Cooper will have to either approve or veto any budget passed, and he has no idea about all the special provisions, pork projects, controversial and partisan items Republicans have inserted thus far. He desperately wants to have Medicaid expansion funded but will there be so much poison Cooper will veto a budget?
Here is what we have learned: Berger’s home is located near Danville, Virginia, where a new casino opened recently. It is attracting large crowds and a count of car license plates reveals a large number of them come from North Carolina. Phil Berger understands the math. Virginia is gaining large revenues from gambling proceeds. But there’s more.
We were told legislative fiscal research reveals that North Carolina might suffer budget shortfalls as soon as the 25-26 fiscal year, due to increased government spending and tax cuts. Casino tax revenues could help prevent those shortfalls without having to raise taxes.
There’s also the matter of Berger’s authority being challenged. He is flexing his muscles to show who really has the power in our state and tells lawmakers that their pet projects might get scrapped from the budget if they don’t vote right. Berger is playing hardball.
The bottom line is that the impasse seems unsolvable and while the folks elected to do “the people’s business” are playing political games there are real world consequences to their folly.
Teachers and state employees have no idea what or how much in pay increases to expect. Maybe this is a reason why North Carolina schools are 3,500 teachers short of what is needed. Important state projects are put on hold or cancelled because of the delays. And you have to know the rest of the country is watching. People wishing to locate plants in our state have to be wondering if they can rely on a state to provide the infrastructure, schools, economy and support they need.
This is embarrassing and unnecessary. We deserve better and would remind lawmakers that, even though they have gerrymandered our state mercilessly, elections are coming soon.
Tom Campbell is a Hall of Fame North Carolina Broadcaster and columnist who has covered North Carolina public policy issues since 1965. Contact him at email@example.com.