The casino scheme is dead but it showed unprecedented arrogance

Published September 21, 2023

By Thomas Mills

Under pressure from both parties, the Republican leadership released their hostage yesterday afternoon. Medicaid will pass this session. Casinos won’t.

After months of delay, the GOP has a budget that will likely get the governor’s signature. The hold up was an ill-considered scheme to force casinos on the state without a proper vetting. Since he couldn’t get enough Republicans on board,  Phil Berger thought he could force Democrats to support the measure if he tied it to Medicaid expansion. First, he stuck it in the budget, but that got panned by both sides. Then, briefly, he floated the idea of putting Medicaid expansion and casinos in a stand-alone bill, daring Democrats to vote against it, but the Democrats didn’t blink. 

In his statement, Berger lamented that nixing casinos hurts rural North Carolina, but that’s a much bigger discussion. Blocking Medicaid expansion devastated rural health care, costing jobs and harming economic development. Shifting money from public schools, often the largest employer in rural counties, to private schools is hurting rural counties, too. Republicans have done very little to advance economic development in rural counties, despite overwhelming electoral victories. Casinos don’t ensure any long term solution to the problems that plague rural counties. Instead, they could increase crime and corruption, introducing a new breed of organized crime to the state.

The whole process stunk. As I’ve said, I’m not inherently anti-casino, but making a major policy shift like the one Berger tried to force deserves public input and discussion, not backroom deals. There’s a whole lot of money in the gambling business and it’s notorious for corruption. The people of North Carolina deserve to see what’s happening. 

The audacity of Berger’s move indicates it’s time for him to go. Regardless of his intentions, the move showed a level arrogance that’s disturbing. Legislators picked the sites for the casinos, including one in Berger’s home county, and bought options on land before they even had a bill. It was done behind closed door without any oversight or vetting. It was a backroom deal so bold it would have made Lyndon Johnson blush. The old saying “Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely” comes to mind. 

Fortunately, the checks and balances worked for once. Conservative Republicans balked at supporting the measure. Roy Cooper used his bully pulpit to sound the alarm to the public. Democrats in the legislature held firm, ensuring that, even if a bill passed, it would not have a veto-proof majority behind it. 

Overall, the budget stinks. It gives more tax breaks for wealthy North Carolinians and shifts taxpayer dollars from public schools to private ones, despite a massive teacher shortage. Teacher pay raises are too low, only 7% over two years. But expanding Medicaid is a major Democratic policy objective. I suspect Cooper will sign it. 

Democrats, for their part, can claim victory for Medicaid while bashing Republicans for trashing public schools. Polling has traditionally shown that voters don’t like shifting taxpayer money from public schools to private ones or subsidizing the rich at the expense of the poor. Stopping the casino scheme and expanding Medicaid are major accomplishments. 

Now, let’s hope the legislature packs up and goes home.