This year, North Carolina has seen a flurry of activity with respect to gambling expansion. After state lawmakers passed a bill that legalizes sports gambling and parimutuel wagering on horse racing, the State Lottery Commission has just approved online gambling. There are now talks of legalizing four new commercial gambling casinos across the state. One of these casinos would be located in Rockingham County.
This week on Family Policy Matters, host Traci DeVette Griggs welcomes Sam Page, Sheriff of Rockingham County, and NC Family’s John Rustin to discuss the harmful impacts of expanding casino gambling in North Carolina.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Thanks for joining us this week for Family Policy Matters. We are interrupting our education series to bring you this important time-sensitive interview discussing attempts by the North Carolina General Assembly to dramatically expanded gambling operations here in North Carolina. Today we’re joined by Rockingham County Sheriff Sam Page and NC Family President John Rustin. Sheriff Page, who previously served as President of the North Carolina Sheriffs Association has been on the front lines of law enforcement’s decades-long fight against the expansion of gambling, and he’s witnessed its many harms since he was first elected sheriff in 1998. Rockingham County is one of the counties targeted for a casino if lawmakers pass a major piece of legislation aimed at expanding gambling operations in our state. Sheriff Sam Page, welcome to Family Policy Matters.
SHERIFF SAM PAGE: Thank you. Glad to be here.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: And John, thanks so much for joining us today for this very important discussion.
JOHN RUSTIN: Well, thank you, Traci. And I really appreciate Sheriff Page participating.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Sheriff Page, give us a historical perspective, you have seen quite a lot of changes in your 25 years in North Carolina, what has happened regarding gambling activity here in our state?
SHERIFF SAM PAGE: The big picture is – and I’m in my 25th year – the video poker of different phases of video gaming, Electronic Gaming, we’ve watched the progression that over the past 25 years, and we’ve had to deal with that with the Sheriffs’ Association, because a lot of it was tied to corruption, criminal activity, and also, well we had our share of robberies and stuff connected with these money-driven operations.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: So why do you assume that the corruption, the robberies, that kind of crime is necessarily linked to the increase in gambling?
SHERIFF SAM PAGE: A casino draws people from all over and for others coming for other opportunities. They are regulated by the federal government, and of course, with the movement of legislature, they would like to have state-regulated casinos off the reservation, but it affects public safety. Public safety should be at the front end of any of these conversations, and that’s where I fault a Representative of the Senate and also the Speaker of the House, and Senator Berger for not being as upfront on these issues and transparent. At the end of the day, public safety hasn’t received a lot of consult on this. And we know that it can bring other activities besides legal activities within a casino, it can also bring your prostitution, bring your other type crimes, including crimes of violence.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: What has been the greatest challenge, in your estimation, for law enforcement across the state of North Carolina in relation to the gambling? Is there something that stands out?
SHERIFF SAM PAGE: Yes, ma’am. A lot of criminal, corrupt activity associated, because primarily, we were dealing mostly with the video gaming machines and the private businesses that had these machines. We the sheriffs were responsible for tagging these machines, local law enforcement working with us to help regulate and control, and so anytime we received violations of payouts, cash payouts, all these other situations, you know, we had to investigate, we spent a lot of investigative time.
And I’ll just be honest with you, you know, we have a lot of work in law enforcement. And then you add on the responsibility of tracking all these thousands of machines and investigating violations. It kept us into that business also. And again, it was a big draw on our responsibilities in law enforcement, but it did bring some violent crime and some other associated crimes with this business. But with the previous video machines, and now we’re talking about the video lottery machines, in the past, it was a lot of criminal activity that we had to monitor and a lot of problems. And then of course, in the community, we have a lot of people that, you know, I’ll just be honest with you, a lot of people were involved in these gaming machines and stuff like this. They were using their hard-earned cash. And again, if it goes into the machines, it goes away from somebody else, and usually the family.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: So you mentioned the fact that you had to spend a lot of time policing gambling operations, you guys are all still short-staffed, right, after COVID and everything that’s happened the last few years. And will this make things even tougher for you?
SHERIFF SAM PAGE: It started back in the Ferguson conversation, and law enforcement has been villainized for a long time. And then we got into COVID coming out of those conversations, the shortages, shortage of manpower, dealing with COVID issues. We’re moving in a lot of different directions in law enforcement and trying to get good qualified people to come to the workforce, which is very hard. And then you add on gaming and gambling in our communities and stuff like this, it just adds to the mix of problems that we’re going to have to work with, and public safety. Everything falls on public safety shoulders.
JOHN RUSTIN: Just want to say thank you to Sheriff Page for all his great work. We have also worked very, very closely with the North Carolina Sheriffs Association to fight the expansion of gambling in North Carolina and also to provide law enforcement more tools to be able to enforce North Carolina’s gambling statutes.
The state legislature passed the lottery in the mid-2000s and have been trying to get rid of video poker, which is now in the form of video sweepstakes in North Carolina. We’ve been trying to get rid of that for decades. And it’s kind of like whack a mole, where the legislature will pass a law to restrict or prohibit certain forms of video gambling, but then the industry files lawsuits, and based on the opinions and rulings of the courts find some way to circumvent the law. And so this has been a constant battle, and now we’re talking about the expansion of gambling in significant additional ways in North Carolina with commercial casinos, and also video lottery terminals, which are basically video poker machines that would be operated under the auspices of the state lottery. And so, you know, it’s just a continued pressure to grow and expand the types of gambling that exist in our state.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: So John, talk a little bit more about that. As President of NC Family, you spent a lot of time down there in the North Carolina legislature. Why is gambling legalization one of the issues that just seems to be constantly popping up?
JOHN RUSTIN: Several answers to that. There are some legislators who think it’s a good idea. There are a lot of legislators who do not believe it’s a good idea. There is a gambling industry out there that has billions and billions of dollars that wants to break into a state like North Carolina and take advantage of our citizens. And so there’s tremendous pressure from lobbyists and the gambling industry. We counted after last legislative session, we identified over 50 registered lobbyists that were working on gambling interests in North Carolina that were registered, paid lobbyists to promote sports gambling, casino gambling, and other forms of gambling in the state. So it’s big dollars. Some legislators believe that it’s a justifiable means to generate tax revenue for the state.
And that’s really what they’re talking about with respect to this casino proposal is that we need to have casinos now to generate tax revenue, and also to compete with casinos that are located, like the one in Danville, Virginia, right up north of our border. So there are all these ideas, but we’ve been sharing with legislators for years that we’ve been researching the issue of gambling, frankly, for decades, and find that the more forms of gambling that exist, the more people are going to gamble and of those who do a significant percentage will develop a pathological or problem gambling issue. And the big concern for us is that gambling addiction is very closely related and manifests itself in things that Sheriff Page was talking about already. Things like theft, embezzlement, job loss, personal bankruptcy, substance abuse, domestic violence, child abuse, divorce, and even suicide. And so these are some of the real concerns that we have not only with the existing gambling forms that we have in the state, but as the legislature is speaking about up to four commercial gambling casinos, which would be huge enterprises across our state, as well as the addition of video lottery terminals under the lottery.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: So Sheriff Page, you just heard John talk about the money being a huge driver, I think, for lawmakers in North Carolina, saying that they would okay, these casinos. What is your sense of what that would do money-wise to law enforcement?
SHERIFF SAM PAGE: Well, you know, first thing you hear is it would bring in all this, I talked to Senator Berger and I talked to Reece Pyrtle, my House member, two weeks ago when I first kind of got the spill on this. And the thing is, first, all you hear is the money, the revenue, but I can tell you from my experience at the local level, and I don’t think it varies much on the state level, is you can talk all these monies, but at the end of the day, public safety seems to always be put in the background, not in the forefront.
What I’m concerned about, just like John said, is it brings other issues, you got some good, you got some bad and you got some residual issues, that you know, I’m already dealing with fentanyl deaths. I mean, I’m dealing with drug addiction, I’m already dealing with mental health issues. This all falls on the backs of law enforcement, because we spend so much time and are engaged so much in these areas, and now we’re going to add gambling addiction, something like this. It just continued to begotten more issues, that they’re going to be coming on our backs, but I don’t see the dollars. My 41 years in law enforcement in Rockingham County, I haven’t seen the monies, and that’s being a priority in my county for public safety. And I’m really concerned about how that would reach out across the state to those other agencies, but usually we’re not at the forefront we’re at the back.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: John, you mentioned that there are lawmakers who are pushing for this, as we well know, who are those people? Can you tell them who we are so we can be aware of them and perhaps make some phone calls?
JOHN RUSTIN: Well, the two primary leaders that we understand are the ones who are going to ultimately make the decision about whether this proposal moves forward in the General Assembly, especially as our state lawmakers are continuing to debate and try to iron out differences in their versions of the state budget are president pro tem of the North Carolina Senate, Phil Berger, and also Speaker of the House, Tim Moore, they are the ones who will ultimately decide whether or not this proposal moves forward this legislative session. And so we would encourage citizens across the state, and have encouraged citizens across the state already, to reach out to Senator Berger and to Speaker Moore, but also it’s very, very important that they reach out to their own legislators to express their concerns in opposition to this proposal.
And you know, for all the reasons that Sheriff Page has stated and that we have shared with lawmakers for years, why this is a bad idea, we at the North Carolina Family Policy Council have easy methods for people to send messages and contact their lawmakers. So they can do that by going to our website at NCFamily.org. That’s NCFamily.org, and go to our action page where you can easily send emails to your legislators expressing opposition to these proposals and also calling the leadership and the house in the Senate to urge them to not move in this direction.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Let’s talk specifically, Sheriff Page, about the newest bill that would legalize some casinos in North Carolina, one in particular that go into your county. Talk about what you see as the threat specifically about that.
SHERIFF SAM PAGE: We’ve got two issues. My county commissioners, on August 21, will vote on his zoning bill to free up 192 acres of land changing it from residential agriculture to highway commercial. By doing so that opens the door and opens the gate for the state side and persons with the casino interests to move that direction to establish those there. So what happened is right beside the land they’re looking to develop is a Camp Carefree, which is one of our camps that provides assistance to kids with disabilities, has been operating since 1986. And they help kids with various disabilities and stuff like this, but the casino, if allowed to go there, and they’re zoned to go there, then it will put it right beside this facility.
Also is residential. So my argument on that issue is, is it reasonable under the test, is it reasonable for the residential area and the camp beside it, is it reasonable to place external there? So I think that conflicts and then of course, at the state level, the senators, they’re trying to pass the bill to make it legal to have the casinos off the Indian reservations. And also they’re trying to make it legal, where you have video lottery terminals. And back, John, what you just said, it’s going back to where we were, as we work 22 years to keep these out, they want to bring them back, I just want to say I’m shocked at some of our conservative legislative persons are going in this direction, something I just didn’t expect to see this
JOHN RUSTIN: Traci, one thing I would share on that too is a lot of people may have the perception that a casino would be a huge economic benefit to a community. And in fact, it’s just the opposite because these casinos come in, and they act as a siphon or cannibalize the local economy and suck money out of the economy instead of add money to the economy. And now the way that these casinos are developed is that they come in, not only with the gambling facility, but also with hotel, with restaurants, with retail space, all in one major development. And so they’re not adding customers to local businesses and local restaurants. What they want to do is keep people within that casino development as long as possible so they can bleed them of as much money as possible. And so the casino and gambling industry are the big beneficiaries of this. It’s not the local economy and it’s certainly not the local citizens.
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Tell us a little bit more about where our listeners can go, one if they want to get involved, and John, you already mentioned that, but how people can learn more about this.
JOHN RUSTIN: Just being on the North Carolina Family Policy Council email list and visiting our website at NCFamily.org. People can sign up to get on our email list if they’re not already and get information. Of course, we’re talking about these issues on social media and so forth. I think it’s particularly important for folks across the state to understand that the communities where these casinos are proposed are in Rockingham County, in Nash County, and also in Anson County, as well as the proposal would allow the Lumbee Indian tribe – which is an Indian tribe that does not have full federal recognition and the right to have gambling like the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians in the Catawba tribe from South Carolina that have three tribal casinos in North Carolina. But this bill would authorize on the state level the Lumbee Indian tribe to also have a casino somewhere in eastern North Carolina, and the proposed draft bill that we have seen lays out probably about 10 different counties in eastern North Carolina where that casino could be located in. So folks in these areas in particular, but folks all across the state who are concerned about this, definitely need to reach out to their legislators and do it very quickly because this proposal could move at a rapid pace in the North Carolina General Assembly
TRACI DEVETTE GRIGGS: Sheriff Sam Page and John Rustin, President of NC Family Policy Council. Thank you both for being with us today on Family Policy Matters.
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