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Two Mecklenburg Democrats cast key votes against NC sports gambling expansion

North Carolina Legislative building
The North Carolina Legislative building.

Two Mecklenburg County Democrats cast key votes Wednesday night in the North Carolina House to block a bill that would allow for an expansion of sports gambling in the state.

The issue of whether to allow sports betting was unusual in that both conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats were against it.

The bill failed in the House by a vote of 49 to 52. It would have established rules to authorize and regulate gambling on professional sporting events and out-of-state horse racing. The Carolina Panthers and Charlotte Hornets support the proposal, and the two franchises could open sports books inside their venues if it is approved.

While most of the Mecklenburg House delegation voted in favor of the bill, two Democrats did not: Mary Belk and John Autry.

“I don’t believe the state should be sanctioning gambling and especially including college sports,” Autry said.

Autry had earlier proposed an amendment — which passed — that would have prohibited betting on college sports. Then he voted against the final bill.

Legislators had changed the bill to send some revenues to the state’s Historically Black Colleges and Universities. Autry said he supports that idea, but not through gambling.

“There has been a lot of back and forth about how to get more money and tax revenue for HBCUs,” Autry said. “Well, I support HBCUs up and down the line. And it ain’t like we don’t have the money in the treasury to do it.”

Supporters of sports gambling say they may try again this session.

The U.S. Supreme Court in 2018 allowed states to authorize sports betting. Two Cherokee casinos in western North Carolina are the only places today where you can bet on sports in the state.

Bill supporters said state residents already are participating in illegal sports betting through offshore online websites or local bookies, and it’s better for the state to control the activity and tax it.

“I certainly understand the concerns of my colleagues on both sides of the aisle, but I also disagree with them,” said State Rep. Wesley Harris, a Mecklenburg County Democrat who supports the bill. “The black market does exist and people are already gambling. But there is no regulation and there’s no help for those people.”

Several critics of the measures said state sanction of sports betting would create gambling addicts, leading to increases in theft, embezzlement and people deep in debt.

“If you vote for this you’re gambling that these two bills will control gambling, in North Carolina,” Rep. Jay Adams, a Catawba County Republican, told colleagues on the House floor. “This is just another opportunity to create unfortunate opportunities for people who can’t resist.”

Rep. Jason Saine, a Lincoln County Republican, said the gambling idea “is not totally dead.” But the General Assembly work session is likely to end late next week.

“It could resurface depending on what happens. If not, sports wagering is going to remain an issue for the state of North Carolina because ... states around us are doing it,” Saine said afterward.

The measures would have authorized the issuance of between 10 and 12 interactive sports wagering operator licenses along with supplier and service provider licenses. People 21 and over within the state’s boundaries would have been able to play on their phones or computers starting in January. NASCAR tracks, golf courses, arenas and stadiums where professional sports are conducted could have betting sites in person or close by if the legislation had succeeded.

The legislation also contained $2 million for problem-gambling programs.

The Associated Press contributed to this story

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Steve Harrison is WFAE's politics and government reporter. Prior to joining WFAE, Steve worked at the Charlotte Observer, where he started on the business desk, then covered politics extensively as the Observer’s lead city government reporter. Steve also spent 10 years with the Miami Herald. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, the Sporting News and Sports Illustrated.