Gambling legalization bill all but dead in NC

30 June 2022

Time seems to have run out on efforts to pass legislation legalizing online sports gambling in North Carolina during this legislative session.

Lobbyists have been hopeful that they’d find a way to resurrect the effort after the wheels came off during a key vote last week, but by Thursday evening any optimism had faded. Key lawmakers left little room for a last-second resuscitation.

“I haven’t checked its pulse, but by all reports it doesn’t have one,” Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger said after Thursday’s Senate session.

“Sports betting continues to be worked on, but I do not think it will resurface this session,” House Majority leader John Bell said earlier in the day.

Lawmakers plan to complete their work, including passing a budget bill, Friday. The two bills dealing with sports gambling would need votes on separate days in the House and the Senate—a multi-day process.

Senate Bill 38 passed the House by a single vote last week, but it was sent back to the rules committee. Senate Bill 668 failed in the House by a single vote last week.

The bills would have allowed for at least 10 and up to 12 online sports wagering operators to be licensed in the state. Adults in North Carolina would have been allowed to bet on sports from their computer or mobile device. Many of the particulars of the legislation changed in recent weeks, including amendments that stripped out betting on college and amateur sports.

Sports gambling could have started as soon as Jan. 1 under the legislation.

Opponents were sharply critical in the House, invoking several sports betting scandals dating back to 1919 and warning of the societal costs associated with allowing widespread sports betting in the state. Sports gambling is legal at two Cherokee casinos in the far-western part of the state, and the Catawba-owned casino in Kings Mountain plans to begin taking sports bets this fall.

“How can we even think this is a good idea for our state?” Rep. Pricey Harrison, a Guilford County Democrat, said during a House debate last week. “This bill subsidizes industry that relies on increasingly predatory practices to generate the profits and fails to protect and support increasingly good quality jobs. … The house is always going to win. North Carolinians are not going to win with this bill.”

Said Rep. Abe Jones, a Wake County Democrat: “Are we, here in this legislature, going to put our imprimatur, our approval on a vice. It is a vice. Pure, simple, no way around it. It’s a vice. It hits you right dead center in your forehead, and you know I’m telling the truth.”

More Republicans voted against the bill than voted for it, an unusual outcome in the GOP-controlled legislature. The measure attracted support and opposition from members of both parties.

The legislation has the backing of the state’s three major professional franchises and Charlotte Motor Speedway. Under the proposals, certain sports facilities would be allowed to open sports lounges, seen as a new lucrative revenue stream. Charlotte Hornets president Fred Whitfield met with lawmakers this week in Raleigh. Carolina Hurricanes general manager Don Waddell, who has met with legislators throughout the process, called the House vote and stalled process “disappointing.”

“It’s very important because all of the other teams are getting it,” Waddell said Wednesday. “It just puts us behind. We’re behind because of ticket prices and sponsorship dollars and all that. It just puts us further behind from a revenue standpoint.”

PNC Arena, one of the facilities that would be allowed to be a place of public accommodation for sports wagering in the bill, could add a sports lounge or sportsbook during a planned renovation. Several board members with the Centennial Authority, which owns the building, said it was a shame that the legislation was voted down.

“It activates parts of the building all the time,” said Philip Isley, the chairman of the Centennial Authority Board on Wednesday. “That’s the big deal. We have activation either on the property itself or in the building to where people are here at six o’clock on a Wednesday night in August when no one’s here. That then becomes another part of how we view this building as more of a community asset that is activated all the time versus just on game nights or concerts or other community events.”

More than 20 states have legalized mobile sports wagering, including Virginia and Tennessee. The North Carolina betting market was expected to be around $5 billion per year, but that was before college sports was removed from the bill. Supporters predicted about $50 million per year in tax revenue, which would have been used to help attract major sporting events, supplement funding for some college athletic departments and fund treatment for those with gambling problems.

Rep. Pat Hurley, a Randolph County Republican, said problem gambling would lead to increases in theft, job loss, personal bankruptcy, substance abuse, domestic violence, child abuse, divorce and suicide.

“It’s not worth the money to put this to our citizens,” she said.

Supporters said a legalized gambling market would, in addition to bring more revenue to the state, provide consumer protections, minimize the chances of scandals and offer more assistance for those with problems.

“If we don’t think there’s gambling going on in North Carolina, you live under a rock,” Waddell said. “Two things you can gain out of it: You gain tax revenue and you also get control of it. It’s just like the lottery. It’s run by the state and we don’t see much difference from it. The state controls it and runs it. We’re disappointed, but we are also optimistic that we’ll see it in the near future.”

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