Gambling, immigration, education among priorities for lawmakers in NC’s Border Belt

By Sarah Nagem

State Sen. Danny Britt says video gambling is one of his top priorities for the current legislative session — and although top Republican leaders have said casinos likely won’t be considered, he’s not giving up on the idea of an “entertainment center” with a casino in southeastern North Carolina. 

The Republican-led legislature could decide whether to legalize video slot machines during the short session that began April 24. Britt, a Republican who represents Robeson, Scotland and Hoke counties, said video-based games of chance are like the lottery. 

“The argument that it’s preying on people because of their propensity to put money in those machines, to me it’s no real difference than the lottery, which we’ve had for two decades now,” he said. 

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The Border Belt Independent reached out last week to all seven lawmakers who represent Bladen, Columbus, Robeson and Scotland counties in the state House and Senate. Only two responded to interview requests: Britt and Rep. Garland Pierce, the only Democrat from the four-county region. Pierce represents Scotland and Hoke counties. 

The BBI did not hear back from Republican state representatives William Brisson, Brenden Jones and Jarrod Lowery, and Republican state senators Bill Rabon and Brent Jackson. 

In separate interviews, Britt and Pierce laid out starkly different priorities for the current session, in which the GOP maintains a supermajority. The main goal of so-called “short” sessions in even-numbered years is to tweak the budget, but lawmakers can also take up other issues. 

Britt said he wants to focus on legislation that would force North Carolina sheriffs to cooperate with federal immigration officials and to create harsher penalties for people who distribute the powerful sedative xylazine. 

Britt wrote the state law that allows prosecutors to criminally charge people with murder who are accused of giving heroin or fentanyl to someone who dies as a result of the drugs. He said he wants to include xylazine in the law.  

Pierce said he wants to focus on the state health plan, education, childcare centers and infrastructure. 

North Carolina is losing too many teachers, partly due to low pay, Pierce said. Local schools need money from the Leandro plan to update aging facilities, he added. 

 “I think somehow, some way, we’ve got to support public education,” Pierce said. 

Day care centers will lose federal grant money in June, a change that will likely force some to close. “I know how important it is for people to be able to go to work,” Pierce said.  

Pierce, a Scotland County preacher, said he is “not a proponent of gambling,” and would likely vote against video slot machines. “I think it preys on the weak,” he said. “You can’t win in Vegas.” 

Britt, a defense attorney, said the court system will likely have to determine the legality of video gambling. He said law enforcement agencies need clarity on the games so they will know whether to arrest people who operate and play them. Law enforcement’s time is better spent investigating violent crimes and property crimes, he added. 

“This county has a lot of issues with crime,” Britt said of Robeson County. “And law enforcement has to decide whether or not to waste manpower hours.” 

NC casinos

Republicans pitched the idea last year to allow four casinos to open in rural areas across the state, including one in southeastern North Carolina run by the Lumbee tribe. The controversial plan, which proponents said would boost the economy in struggling counties, was ultimately left out of the budget.

Senate leader Phil Berger, a Republican, heard from dozens of people who said they opposed casinos, according to emails obtained by the Border Belt Independent through a public records request. Many of the emails were from people who did not want a casino in Rockingham County, which is part of Berger’s district. 

Britt said he has heard mixed reactions about a possible casino for the Lumbee tribe, which is headquartered in Robeson County and has about 60,000 members. The proposal last year called for a casino to be built in one of several southeastern counties as part of an entertainment district with shopping, hotels and more. 

Britt said he would like to see such a project in Robeson County. But he said the tribe was considering property closer to the coast for a casino. He declined to say where the property is located. 

“You want to put an entertainment center where people are,” Britt said, adding that Robeson County is not a tourist destination. 

Pierce said he was “undecided” about casinos. If his constituents want a casino in southeastern North Carolina, he said, it wouldn’t be the first time he has had to “hold my nose” and vote in favor of legislation. 

 “I want to hear what citizens have to say,” Pierce said.