NC Lawmaker Outlines Timeline for Expanding Sports Betting

NC Lawmaker Outlines Timeline for Expanding Sports Betting
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The question of broader sports wagering in North Carolina should be settled by July 1.

That’s the bottom line, according to a state legislator familiar with the issue and an advocate for legalized, regulated and, most important, revenue-producing sports betting in North Carolina.

“When we get back in session beginning Jan. 13, one of the reality checks is that we’re going to be short on revenue,” said North Carolina state Rep. Jason Saine (R-Lincoln County), whose assignments include senior chairman for the House Finance Committee and co-chair of the Joint Legislative Oversight Committee on the North Carolina State Lottery.

“Combine that (need for revenue) with that fact that over the years, gambling has become more and more accepted in certain circles of society. And the question you get from citizens is, ‘Why can’t we play this game or that game, or why can’t we do what we can do in other states?’ Legislators are getting those questions.”

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Indeed, Tennessee, the neighbor to the west, which has no casinos, started online sports wagering on Nov. 1. Virginia, to the north, has approved sports wagering and is expected to launch early in 2021. Georgia, to the southwest, has an online sports wagering bill in the works, albeit in a long process.

In western North Carolina, there are two Native American casinos owned by the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians who recently came to an agreement with the state on opening their own retail sportsbooks. North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper this week signed a long-delayed compact that will allow the sportsbooks to operate, Dory MacMillan, Cooper’s press secretary, said in an email Wednesday. It has been submitted to the Department of Interior for review, she said.

Cooper signed sports betting into law in July 2019, making in-person wagering legal at the two tribal casinos. The law limits sports wagering only to the Eastern Band of Cherokee casinos in Cherokee and Murphy.

A third Native American casino owned by the Catawba Nation is under construction about 35 miles west of Charlotte. A plan regarding that casino’s operation has been submitted to the governor as a basis for a compact. Otherwise, North Carolina has had a relatively restrictive history regarding gambling. The state does have a lottery but no live horse racing.

Online Sports Betting a Must

Regarding sports wagering, it’s all about online betting — that’s where the vast majority of the action occurs — and for North Carolina to have a thriving sports betting business that can produce significant tax money, mobile wagering needs to be be approved. And this year, with most states facing obvious budget problems, the time may have come for North Carolina to come to that conclusion — as have more than a score of other U.S. jurisdictions.

"With the pressure on legislators to come up with additional revenue to make up for the loss (during the pandemic business slowdown), along with social pressures from people moving to North Carolina who move here from states that had (more gambling),” Saine said, “it’s a topic of conversation that we’ve had multiple, multiple times in previous sessions. … But it is time.”

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The North Carolina General Assembly convenes on Jan. 13. Following routine organizational business and after the state Senate begins the budget process, Saine said that an initial sports wagering bill should be produced in an initial form by mid to late February. The bill could come out of either the Senate or the House, he said.

“There may be some hearings during that time period and the bill will get passed from one house to the other,” Saine said. “Then, we’ll get down to the nitty-gritty about mid-April when our tax revenues come in.”

At that point, projected sports wagering revenue becomes a piece of the budget puzzle.

“It will probably be mid- to late June when we’ll have a final answer on whether this is going to make it this year or not,” he continued. “It would be in the budget forecasting for how we plan for the upcoming fiscal year. So, that’s probably a reasonable timeline.”

An Approach to NC Sports Betting Expansion

What would broader sports wagering look like in North Carolina?

Advocates have to be careful. Plans that are too ambitious will turn off lawmakers who have been resistant to gambling in the past, including even daily fantasy sports.

“A pragmatic approach to sports betting would be with the sporting venues that we have, from the (NFL) Panthers to the (NHL) Hurricanes to the (NBA) Hornets to NASCAR. Something along those lines, along with working out some understanding with the tribal gaming interests that are involved,” Saine said.

Having a low-keyed, contained presence would help alleviate concerns of people who fear “a casino-on-every-corner type legislation,” Saine said.

“We’ll see something a lot more narrow, like at the (sports) venues or at places where gambling is already happening, such as at Cherokee. I think that’s what it’ll ultimately look like. … We’re not going to be Nevada. We know that. … There will be some checks, some brakes, on how far we go,” he said.

What Would Lottery’s Role Be?

An issue that came into play during the preliminary consideration of sports wagering has been the role of the state lottery. Should the lottery or commercial companies, such as DraftKings, FanDuel, BetMGM, William Hill, and the like operate sports wagering?

The North Carolina Education Lottery, at the direction of the legislature, commissioned a study by New Jersey-based Spectrum Gaming, a well-regarded gaming consulting firm. In a report that the lottery prepared describing Spectrum’s analysis and distributed to some legislators, including Saine, there was a clear position that the lottery — and not commercial companies — should run sports wagering in North Carolina both online and through its normal retail outlets.

At the moment, it does not appear that will be the approach the legislature is going to take.

“I’ve talked to a number of colleagues who have seen the report who feel the same way I do. It’s part of the conversation but it’s not necessarily the road map,” Saine said.

“I’m not here to criticize the role of government in regulatory issues,” he continued, “but if we can put in good, pragmatic legislation those (commercial) entities will have the framework with which to work, and government doesn’t have to get involved in a new enterprise. That’s something I want to avoid and I am going to avoid. … (The companies) know what works, what doesn’t work, how to market. Private enterprise is a better model.”

Politically, North Carolina is operating with divided government. Gov. Cooper is a Democrat; the state Senate and House have Republican majorities. The politics can be contentious. But Saine is hoping that sports wagering will not be a partisan battle although there has not been a great deal of communication regarding the issue, he said.

“He does have a state to govern and a state to run, and he’s going to need revenue to do that,” Saine said of the governor. “I tend to think (sports wagering) would be one of the minor arguments, if there is one.”

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