North Carolina Republicans consider authorizing more gambling as opponents rally

As North Carolina House members met privately over whether to authorize more gambling in the state, social conservatives, business operators and political candidates urged lawmakers on Tuesday to reject efforts to permit more casinos and legalize statewide video gaming machines.

Residents of rural Rockingham, Anson and Nash counties, which have been previously designated by legislators as potential locations for non-tribal casinos as part of “entertainment districts” in a proposal considered by House and Senate Republicans, visited Raleigh to lobby against the idea.

During a news conference outside the Legislative Building, the gambling opponents lamented the lack of public discussion about any gambling proposal. It could end up in the final state budget bill that the General Assembly probably will vote on next week if enough House and Senate Republicans want it there.

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Tuesday’s rally of about 50 people holding “Keep Our Community Great” placards contrasted with the gambling interests — and their dozens of lobbyists — who have been very active during this year’s legislative session.

The news conference happened while House Republicans met behind closed doors in a caucus meeting that lasted over three hours. The level of support for casinos, video gambling terminals and other gambling options were among items discussed, Speaker Tim Moore said later Tuesday.

The General Assembly already passed a law in June that authorizes sports gambling starting next year. The state currently has three casinos, operated by two American Indian tribes.

Moore told reporters that his lieutenants were still contacting GOP colleagues to determine whether there are enough votes to move forward on more gambling.

“I want to know where our caucus is, and we just have to have a count, and we don’t have it yet,” Moore told reporters.

Some lawmakers have said the three potential casinos and another possible gambling operation in southeastern North Carolina would generate state and local revenues, create jobs and counter expanded gambling in other states, particularly in Virginia.

No official legislation has been introduced, frustrating opponents who say high-stakes gambling in their communities will lower residential property values, discourage people from moving in and breed social ills like crime that would hurt families.

“This is not about politics. This is about people. This is about the next generation. Our kids today have enough bad things on their doorstep,” said Joni Robbins, a real estate agent from Nash County, said at the news conference, warning: “If you mess with our kids, we will vote you out.”

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Republicans hold veto-proof majorities in the House and Senate, but Moore said legislation usually doesn’t go forward in his chamber unless a majority of the 72 Republicans support it. Senate Republicans also would have to vote on any final budget that contains provisions to expand gambling. An approved budget would then go to Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper’s desk.

Moore revealed to reporters few specifics of the potential gambling provisions being debated, although he did say they weren’t identical to ideas that had been made public earlier this year.

Short of blocking gambling expansion, some speakers at Tuesday’s rally said legislators should at least require local voter support for a casino through a referendum before one could be built.

“Our representatives have the chance today to stand up and show that they represent their citizens in their respective counties by allowing our citizens to have a voice in the destiny and values in their communities where they live,” said Rockingham County Sheriff Sam Page, who is also running for lieutenant governor next year. Former GOP U.S. Rep. Mark Walker, who is running for governor and used to represent Rockingham County, also spoke.

Moore said discussions have focused on leaving casino decision-making to county commissions and city councils, whom voters elect, rather on local referendums specifically.

The idea of a casino and entertainment district has received a lot of attention in Rockingham County, where Senate leader Phil Berger lives. Berger has pointed out how a casino that recently opened in nearby Danville, Virginia, is popular with North Carolina residents, who are spending their money over the border.

Rockingham County commissioners last month voted unanimously to rezone nearly 200 acres of farmland for commercial use, despite opposition from many local residents. The rezoning was requested by a holding company linked to a casino developer.

Brandon Leebrick, a Greensboro attorney who helped organize Tuesday’s rally, said he anticipated that local landowners would mount a legal challenge to the commissioners’ rezoning decision.

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