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Top Senate Republican in NC insists casinos can only advance through the budget

As House Republicans held another meeting Monday to resolve last minute issues that have delayed the approval of a state budget, the top Republican in the Senate said gaming legislation would not move forward if it was kept out of the spending plan.

Senate leader Phil Berger, who met privately with a small group of House GOP lawmakers on Monday afternoon, including members of the House Freedom Caucus, told reporters afterward that the only path for the controversial proposal to sanction up to four new casinos in North Carolina was through the budget.

Berger said he met with the group to make sure they had the same understanding of what was in the much talked about casino proposal as he did. He said that in the past, there have been “multiple iterations” of the proposal, but that there wasn’t more than one version being discussed right now.

Berger, a major proponent of the casino proposal, said he didn’t ask the House lawmakers he met with for “a show of hands” of how many of them would support the proposal.

Budget negotiations have dragged on this summer as Berger has insisted that the gaming expansion, which could also include the legalization and regulation of thousands of video lottery terminals across the state, be included in the budget.

He reiterated that Monday as the House Republican Caucus was slated to meet behind closed doors to discuss the casino issue and whether GOP leaders can put together enough support to include the proposal in the budget, and vote on it as soon as this week.

On the possibility of casinos and VLTs being voted on in a separate, standalone bill, Berger said: “I don’t see a proposal where that’s an appropriate way for us to go.”

Status of budget talks remains unclear

House Speaker Tim Moore spoke to reporters earlier on Monday afternoon, just before he said House Republicans would hold another caucus meeting to try and resolve the final issues that have been holding up the budget.

Without commenting on what the caucus would discuss specifically, Moore said he expected that there would be “open and frank conversation” about the policy choices that lawmakers face, and the direction the House wanted to go versus the Senate.

Last week, Moore said the budget could be released and voted on this week. On Monday, ahead of his caucus meeting, he said he wanted to see the budget approved as soon as possible, but added that depending on how talks go, the process could drag on until later in the week or even next week.

Lawmakers had initially targeted the end of June for passing and enacting the budget, before the start of the new fiscal year on July 1.

Berger surprised by House’s new threshold

While speaking to reporters, Berger said he was surprised to learn last week that the self-imposed threshold in the House to pass a budget with casinos in it was 61 Republicans, and not just a majority of the 72-member Republican caucus.

“It’s inconsistent with everything that I’ve been told up to that point,” Berger said.

It takes 61 votes to pass anything in the 120-member House.

Asked if he felt the goalposts for securing support in the House had been moved, Berger replied: “Into another stadium.”

Berger’s comments came after Moore informed the House GOP Caucus last week that a budget would not move forward without the support of 61 Republicans, and that as of that moment, there weren’t that many GOP votes in the House for a spending plan that included the casino proposal.

Asked about that threshold Monday, Moore told reporters the caucus was likely going to discuss what the standard should be for “any number of issues” during their meeting later in the day.

What if there isn’t an agreement?

Berger said that mini-budgets could be on the table, among other possibilities, if Republicans aren’t able to come to an agreement on a full spending plan.

That could put Medicaid expansion — a key, long-standing priority of Gov. Roy Cooper’s — in limbo.

Under the expansion deal signed into law, implementation of the federal-state health insurance program hinges on the passage of a state budget.

Asked what would happen to expansion if only mini-budgets were passed Berger said, “We’ve not had those conversations, so it’s hard for me to say what it would or would not trigger.”

“I would just say that there are a lot of things in the budget, that we’ll have to go back to the drawing boards if it hits the floor and does not pass.”