The state legislature appears to be in a standoff over legalized casinos, as both sides of the issue play their cards close to the vest. Language that could allow casinos reportedly appeared in a proposed Senate version of the budget during negotiations and reflected a draft policy on casinos that was floated in July.
The draft was reported by WRAL as a “rural tourism incentive program,” outlining a $1.5 billion state investment and creation of three of privately run casinos, plus a fourth potentially run by the Lumbee Tribe in eastern North Carolina. The Catawba Tribe already operates a casino in King’s Mountain, and the Eastern Band of Cherokee Tribe operates one in Western North Carolina.
The legislature’s Freedom Caucus, led by Rep. Keith Kidwell, R-Beaufort, and Sen. Bobby Hanig, R-Currituck, has been fighting back on adding casinos to the budget. Kidwell plans to run to be speaker of the North Carolina House in 2025 and said this steeled his resolve to lead the chamber.
“There are 35 members of the Freedom Caucus, and most of them were not happy with the process on this,” said Kidwell in a phone call with Carolina Journal. “They are not necessarily upset about the fact of casinos, but they just don’t like the way this was put in the budget, and not going through the committee process. Now, there are some who say ‘no casinos, period.’ But I think the reason we got as much pushback as we did was the process they were trying to go through.”
An analysis completed earlier this year on the potential impact of three new resort casinos indicated that there is an estimated $1.9 billion market for casinos in North Carolina. Spectrum Gaming Group conducted the study for Greater Carolina and said that each home county for the facilities would have about 3,000 jobs and $30 million in local tax revenue.
While no bills have been filed, negotiations over what a casino policy might include are causing controversy in the home stretch of state budget negotiations. A state budget was originally expected to come out toward the end of June, but it is now expected on Sept. 11.
The three locations for casinos are likely to be Nash, Anson, and Rockingham counties. Lobbyists for casino interests have been active at the state legislature and in the communities of the potential sites.
In Rockingham County, represented by Senate President Pro Tempore Phil Berger, county commissioners recently approved rezoning 192 acres into a commercial entertainment district, but protesters came out to push back on the vote.
“Anybody in this room, anybody could’ve purchased this land, it’s been for sale,” Commissioner Houston Barrow told protesters at the meeting.
“I don’t believe it is government’s job when they sell land, to tell people what they can do with it,” Commissioner Don Powell added.
From Nash County, a video circulating online Thursday showed comments from property owner Kent Dozier, who claims in 2015 he signed an option document with the Rocky Mount Chamber of Commerce that he would be willing to sell his property if a developer needed it for a project. He now says he feels misled when in 2020 the option document showed a new name, Carolinas Gateway Partnership, who he says did not inform him of the possibility that a casino would go on the land he sold to them.
Dozier named former NC Commerce Secretary Tony Copeland in the video, who is among the five economic development lobbyists working for the Cordish Companies, a commercial real estate group that builds entertainment, retail, and sports facilities, including casinos.
“Tony Copeland met with us in Norris Tolson’s office and expressed a desire to pick up the option in May that would expire in June,” said Dozier, indicating in the video that the group is purchasing his land and home.
“Had I known that there was going to be a casino, that there would be gambling, they would not have had my signature,” said Dozier. “My hope is that this falls through, that it’s not passed in Raleigh.”
betting on growth
The national Conservative Political Action Committee tweeted on Thursday its opposition to casinos in North Carolina.
An August poll from The John Locke Foundation showed that a majority of voters said they would support the legalization of casinos and gambling (54.6%), a 22.5-point lead ahead of those who say they would oppose (32.1%). Support for casinos is highest among men aged 18-34, whereas women in the same age group have the highest levels of opposition.
The poll also showed that while most voters believe casinos would bring in tax revenue, they are divided on the social costs. Just over 46% of respondents said they were “very” or “somewhat” worried, compared to 47% who said they were “not very” or “not at all” worried.
“A lot of these bills function as what I call a Freddy Krueger bill,” said Kidwell. “Right about the time you think they are dead, someone breathes new life into them and they are out chasing you again. I will suppose that is what will happen with the casino bill.”
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