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Each Monday, Tommy Tomlinson delivers thoughtful commentary on an important topic in the news. Through these perspectives, he seeks to find common ground that leads to deeper understanding of complex issues and that helps people relate to what others are feeling, even if they don’t agree.

North Carolina folds when it comes to gambling expansion, at least for now

A proposal to expand legal gambling in North Carolina got dropped from the state budget in last-minute negotiations. WFAE’s Tommy Tomlinson, in his "On My Mind" commentary, says it might just delay the inevitable.

There’s an old joke I won’t tell here because one, this is public radio and we have standards, and two, most of y’all have heard it already. I’ll just say the punchline, which is this: “We already know what you are. We’re just haggling over the price.”

North Carolina is a gambling state. We already know what we are. We’re just haggling over how much we want to admit it.

The legislature finally passed a budget late last week. Gov. Roy Cooper will let it become law without signing it because of problems he has with other parts of the budget. But one thing that dropped out along the way was a plan to legalize four more casinos, as well as video lottery terminals.

Note the phrasing there: four more casinos, video lottery terminals. Those modifiers are necessary because North Carolina already has three active casinos: one in Cherokee, one in Murphy, and the Two Kings casino over in Kings Mountain. That one’s still being built but you can go over and gamble in what amounts to a giant portable classroom.

And North Carolina has been a lottery state since 2006, as you well know if you’ve ever been stuck in a convenience store behind somebody buying a stack of scratch-offs.

The gambling proposals got tied up in a web of complicated alliances and last-minute deals in this year’s budget. Some legislators tried to tie the gambling proposals to Medicaid expansion. There was also a rift on the conservative side of the aisle over the morality of state-supported gambling.

I’ll admit two things here. One, I’m with the anti-gambling legislators in spirit. And two, I’m a total hypocrite about it. I’ve been in casinos all over the country, usually playing low-stakes poker, never winning or losing more than a few bucks at a time. Gambling is one vice I have a handle on.

But a lot of people don’t have a handle on it.

Casinos — and the lottery, for that matter — prey on the poor and desperate. Every month the Nevada Gaming Control Board publishes a report on casino winnings in that state. David Payne Purdum, an ESPN gambling writer, posts the highlights on the platform formerly known as Twitter. In July, the casinos made a little more than $25 million on sports betting, $40 million on craps, $109 million on blackjack. But by far the biggest take — $275 million — was from penny slots. People with yachts don’t play penny slots. A lot of the folks playing those have an overdue light bill.

I understand that part of it, too. When you’re broke, or close to it, it can feel like there’s no way out. The right pull of the slots, or the right Powerball numbers, can be a literal ticket to paradise.

The calculation the state should make is not whether it can keep people from gambling. That’s impossible. The better question is whether state-sanctioned gambling creates new gamblers, and new problems, or just funnels the money in a way that might do some good. (By the way, legalizing marijuana has the exact same decision tree.)

In the end, I guess, I prefer that North Carolina go slow when it comes to casinos. But we can’t pretend to have any sense of purity. We’ve already taken the money for a long time now. The question is how badly we want even more.

Tommy Tomlinson’s "On My Mind" column runs Mondays on WFAE and WFAE.org. It represents his opinion, not the opinion of WFAE. You can respond to this column in the comments section below. You can also email Tommy at ttomlinson@wfae.org.

Tommy Tomlinson has hosted the podcast SouthBound for WFAE since 2017. He also does a commentary, On My Mind, which airs every Monday.