The allure of gambling money
What’s behind Republican leaders’ insistent push to legalize multiple forms of gambling – from online sports betting to casinos and video poker kiosks — despite resistance from caucus members, core Republican voters, pastors and sheriffs? What happened to concerns about crime, addiction and victimizing the poor?
It could be years before we know the full story. After NC House Speaker Jim Black’s conviction two decades ago, new research only emerged during his sentencing hearing that helped explain his adamant defense of video poker: he pocketed a $500,000 “loan” from the industry’s top lobbyist.
Prosecutors in Black’s corruption case concluded, “It’s all about money and the lust for power.”
Are we seeing a repeat of that scenario in the new push for gambling?
Two reports have already revealed that lawmakers are getting a surge in campaign contributions from gambling-related donors, even during this legislative session — an eye-popping $1 million in three years, with most of that in the past year.
Now I’m finding that a surge of gambling money is also flooding the “dark money” groups that have become increasingly important in North Carolina elections.
Across the nation, politicians like Senate leader Phil Berger and Speaker Tim Moore are increasingly relying on these groups to win key elections and maintain their power. The dominant NC-based group is Citizens for a Better North Carolina (CBNC). Since its launch in 2020, it has funneled millions of dollars to a political firm run by former staffers of Sen. Berger for mailers and ads attacking Democratic candidates.
In October 2022, CBNC received its largest donation ever from an individual — a $1 million contribution from Jeff Yass, a Pennsylvania billionaire and gambling advocate, whose company owns the biggest block of stock in a sports betting company.
CBNC used money from Yass and other donors in 2022 to finance mailings that helped defeat three Democratic legislators whose votes killed a sports betting bill, 49-52. CBNC’s largest investment in a 2022 legislative race supported Bobby Hanig, a rare member of the House Freedom Caucus who voted for that sports gambling bill .
Despite its name, Citizens for a Better North Carolina is mostly funded by businesses through a maze of intermediaries that have flourished since the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling. In fact, 93% of CBNC’s money has come from the Virginia-based Good Government Coalition, which in turn has received 92% of its money from two national organizations devoted to electing Republicans — the Republican State Leadership Committee (RSLC) and GOPAC.
Both of those organizations raise millions of dollars each year from a variety of corporations, including tobacco and drug companies — and my research shows they are getting increasingly large amounts from gambling companies and associations.
Donations to RSLC and GOPAC just from the gambling interests with lobbyists now at the General Assembly topped $1.5 million from January 2022 to June 2023, more than twice what those donors gave the two organizations during 2020-2021.
The total includes: $50,000 from a unit of The Cordish Companies, which recently bought land for possible casinos in Rockingham and Nash counties; and $150,000 from the Illinois-based J & J Ventures and $35,000 from NC-based Grover Gaming, two major video poker vendors.
All three of those companies are new donors to GOPAC or RSLC. Executives at these companies are also suddenly becoming major contributors to the campaigns of North Carolina legislators, giving hundreds of thousands of dollars since January 2022.
Phil Berger and Tim Moore sit on the leadership committees of RSLC and GOPAC and actively work with each group’s donors. They keep telling us that gambling is a vital source of revenue for North Carolina’s future. Maybe they really just mean it’s a money source for their future.
(Bob Hall is a long-time analyst of campaign finance reports. A version of this column appeared in the McClatchy newspapers.)