Politics & Government

Sports gambling is one step closer to being legal, at least in one part of North Carolina

Gambling on sports could soon be legal in one small corner of North Carolina, and state lawmakers expect it to be a multimillion dollar industry.

The North Carolina Senate overwhelmingly passed a bill Tuesday that would allow casinos run by Native American tribes to offer betting on college and professional sports, as well as horse racing. The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, whose two western North Carolina casinos are the only ones in the state for now, would stand to benefit greatly if Senate Bill 154 eventually becomes law.

“It is expected it will enhance the revenue of the tribe about $14 million a year, and that will yield about $1 million to the state,” said Sen. Jim Davis, a Republican who filed the bill and whose seven-county district includes the Cherokee reservation.

Tribes have long been able to have other forms of gambling in North Carolina, and Davis said the Cherokee tribe has put its earnings to good use in the past, like building a hospital.

Money from the casino industry “has just transformed the community,” he said in the Senate — which is why he supports expanding the ability of tribal casinos in North Carolina to have sports betting as well. The News & Observer previously reported the two casinos employ around 4,000 people and are currently undergoing a $250 million expansion to add hundreds of new hotel rooms to the original casino, located in the town of Cherokee.

The push for sports betting comes in the wake of a key U.S. Supreme Court decision last year, Murphy v. NCAA, which allowed individual states to decide whether to legalize sports betting. This proposal for North Carolina would limit sports betting to tribal casinos, and not allow it anywhere else in the state.

North Carolina athletic director Bubba Cunningham previously told The N&O that UNC opposes gambling on college sports.

SB 154 will now go to the House of Representatives and, if it passes there, to Gov. Roy Cooper to sign or veto. And while the legislature is controlled by Republicans and Cooper is a Democrat, partisan politics don’t necessarily stand in the way. The bill passed the Senate 43-7 with bipartisan support.

None of the seven senators who opposed the bill Tuesday explained in the Senate why they voted against it. In the past, as with a failed legislative attempt in 2018 to regulate fantasy sports, some Christian groups have opposed bills they believe would promote gambling.

In a Senate committee meeting last month, John Rustin of the conservative Family Policy Council predicted legal sports wagering at tribal casinos would eventually lead to further expansion.

“How can you authorize it for this purpose but then oppose it in a statewide form?” Rustin told the committee, the NC Insider reported. “While this may seem like an isolated and limited expansion of gambling, it is likely to have far-reaching consequences.”

The tribe’s Principal Chief Richard G. Sneed told the Cherokee One Feather newspaper last month that the tribe hosted a reception for lawmakers where they talked about how expanding the tribe’s casino offerings to include horse racing and sports betting would help the tribe and the entire local economy.

“Sports betting would create a new clientele for the casinos and create a new revenue stream for Cherokee,” Sneed told the paper. “Sports betting is an emerging market across the country.”

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