Despite a major push for the gambling industry to expand in the state, Republican leaders of the North Carolina General Assembly announced Tuesday night they forfeited a months-long fight to include a controversial casino expansion bill in their compromise budget. Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger has vied to not let the legislation die, however.
Reports show in recent months several gambling companies have made campaign contributions to top lawmakers and hired influential lobbyists.
“The donors’ checks are crucial for understanding what’s going on,” according to campaign finance investigator Bob Hall, former executive director of the nonprofit Democracy North Carolina. “This sudden embrace by legislative leaders of big time gambling is so strange, given North Carolina’s conservative history and long-standing opposition from pastors and sheriffs. You have to follow the money.”
The legislation would have authorized building four new casinos in North Carolina. Already three exist statewide: Catawba Two Kings Casino Resort in Kings Mountain, Harrah’s Cherokee Casino Resort in Cherokee, and Harrah’s Cherokee Valley River Hotel and Casino in Murphy County.
The bill proposed one casino to be built on Lumbee tribal land, in one of eight North Carolina counties, including New Hanover and Brunswick. It also called for three non-tribal casinos anticipated to be constructed in Rockingham, Nash, and Anson counties.
The Lumbee Tribe told Port City Daily they did not have a comment on the legislation.
Hall argues that the strong legislative push for gambling expansion is the result of improper campaign financing. He filed a complaint with the North Carolina Board of Elections in May alleging that the video poker industry illegally donated $885,000 to candidates, including those from the Cape Fear region, and party committees from 2019 to 2022. The complaint called for an investigation into the North Carolina Coin Operators Association for illegal bundling, the circumvention of contribution limits and reporting requirements imposed on a political action committee.
North Carolina Board of Elections public information director Patrick Gannon told Port City Daily he could not comment on developments regarding Hall’s call for investigation; campaign finance complaints and investigations are confidential under N.C.G.S. § 163-278.22(7).
Hall followed up his complaint with an additional report on gambling and marijuana- related financing in 2023, also sent to the board of elections. According to Hall’s review, “38 gambling-related businesses and associations — including 29 based outside North Carolina — are paying 71 different lobbyists to promote their agenda this year to 170 state legislators.”
Hall pinpoints Sen. Bill Rabon (R-Brunswick, Columbus, New Hanover) received $6,000 this year from Richard Frye, owner of Sandhills Amusement, a video gambling company. A spreadsheet accompanying Hall’s complaint indicated Rabon for Senate received a combined $42,800 from gambling interests between 2020 and 2022 as well.
Sen. Rabon’s office declined to comment on his position on the possible casino expansion.
According to Hall’s complaint, the Committee to Elect Charles W. Miller (R-Brunswick, New Hanover) received a combined $7,600 from Bobby Huckabee of Virgin Islands-based Southland Gaming and Robert G. Willenborg of Illinois-based J&J Ventures Gaming in 2022. Miller took in another $6,600 in donations from the gaming industry this year.
Huckabee also donated $11,800 to the Committee to Elect Michael Lee (R-New Hanover) from 2020 to 2022. The committee received a combined $25,400 in donations from three gambling companies over the three years, according to Hall’s research. Huckabee donated an additional $5,600 to the Committee to Elect Michael Lee in 2023.
The report also detailed Carson Smith for NC House (R-Pender, Onslow) received $2,000 from Robert H. Huckabee in 2022. In 2023, Carson Smith for NC House gained $2,000 from Keith Loflin of Virginia-based Southern Amusements and $1,000 from Jonathan Sutton of Greenville, NC-based Sutton Amusements.
Port City Daily reached out to area reps about their positions on the bill. Deb Butler (D-New Hanover) was the only one to respond. She strongly opposes the bill and said she would fight against any future efforts to bring casinos to the region.
“Whether it could actually be implemented in a county as small as New Hanover, I do not know,” Butler said. “But I can guarantee you this — if there is a way to accomplish it, and unless the community speaks loudly in opposition, they’ll find a way.”
A legislative aide for Miller told Port City Daily the bill was dropped due to insufficient support in the House. Speaker of the House Tim Moore said a few weeks ago 30 of 72 House Republicans opposed inserting the section on expanding gambling into the state budget.
“There were differences of opinion, and at the end of the day we felt like this issue and no one single issue should hold up a budget,” Moore said Tuesday in a joint announcement with Berger, a major proponent of the legislation.
Berger received $5,600 in 2022 from The Cordish Companies executive Joseph Weinberg. The company develops casinos and has given at least eight NC lawmakers a total of $34,000.
NC Development Holdings LLC, a unit of The Cordish Companies, is represented by lobbyist Fetzer Strategic Partners. Hall told Port City Daily he views Tom Fetzer, who runs FSP, as North Carolina’s most influential lobbyist with a home and clients in Wilmington. NC Development Holdings LLC hired Fetzer to lobby for an undisclosed amount in 2023.
Fetzer also is contracted as a lobbyist for New Hanover County. According to county spokesperson Alex Riley, FSP helps advance “the county’s legislative goals and priorities through advocacy and engagement with state officials.” FSP’s contract with the county has been renewed every two years since 2016, the most recent from June 2023 showing the county has the company on retainer for $5,000 a month.
Port City Daily asked Fetzer about his role lobbying for NC Development Holdings on the casino expansion bill. He responded: “I have no comment.”
“Let me make it clear: We’re not talking about the MGM Grand or Bellagio. This is the Dollar General of casinos,” Butler said. “It’s not a pretty picture, and it’s certainly nothing that North Carolina should be courting.”
Proponents of the bill argue more casinos would benefit local economies, create jobs, and increase tourism. The bill mandates that businesses pursuing casino development must invest at least $500 million in private funds in each location and create at least 1,750 jobs.
“It was just pretty clear that the facts were almost beside the point as to what those proposals would do for rural areas,” Berger said Tuesday during the announcement. “The emotion that was permeating every bit of discussion, I’ve learned that in an environment like that you’re unlikely to make any progress.”
Detractors of casino expansion, such as the NC Values Coalition, contend it would hurt local communities by creating addiction, crime, and gambling problems. The National Association of Realtors has also described the impact of casinos on neighboring property values as “unambiguously negative.”
Alternatively, a North Dakota State University study examining the relationship between casino establishments and economic growth found that “casino expansions exerted a small, positive effect on both per capita income growth and job growth.” The authors noted that they did not include negative externalities, such as crime and social problems, in their study.
“All the old reasons about addiction, crime, social decay and victimizing the poor are suddenly no longer very important,” Hall told Port City Daily. “It’s now all about the money. But when GOP leaders talk about gambling as a revenue source for the state, maybe they really just mean it’s a money source for themselves.”
While Berger said he did not believe the casino bill would move forward in the coming weeks, he pledged to continue fighting for the legislation.
The push comes as House Bill 347 passed in the spring, legalizing online sports betting in North Carolina.
It’s also on the heels of Caesars Casino opening in May in Danville, located just across on the North Carolina border in Virginia, roughly an hour or so away from the Triangle. A 40,000-square-foot tent currently houses the casino as its 500-room hotel and resort is under construction, to be finished by next year.
Tips or comments? Email journalist Peter Castagno at email@example.com.