By L.A. Williams, Correspondent
Christian Action League
CHEROKEE — Gov. Bev Perdue may be ready to roll out the red carpet to expanded gaming on Cherokee lands, but it would pay North Carolina’s highest official to take a close look at the effects of gambling and the legal intricacies involved before trying to negotiate a Las Vegas style deal.
“Because the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act has been around more than 20 years, we can see what has happened in states that have significantly expanded gambling and truly ask ourselves, is that what we want for North Carolina,” said the Rev. Mark Creech, executive director of the Christian Action League of North Carolina. “We sincerely don’t think so. Further, we would question the legal grounds of any such expansion.”
Visiting Jackson County for the opening of Sequoyah National Golf Club earlier this week, Perdue said she is “always available to talk to the Cherokee tribe about what it is they envision and how they want to get there.”
The tribe’s Eastern Band pays Harrah’s to run its casino where, by state compact, offerings include video gambling machines and digital blackjack with a live dealer, but no table gambling such as poker, craps or roulette. These are games the tribe has long sought as it has pushed for unlimited prize pay-outs, lower age limits for workers, the opening of more casino facilities and a contract without end.
Signed by then-Gov. Jim Hunt in 1994, the first agreement with the tribe was amended in 2000 to raise raffle prize limits to $50,000 and do away with limits for some video games, to allow customer cash advances and to eliminate square footage restrictions on gambling space. The compact was also extended from seven to 30 years. Electronic raffles and bingo games were added in 2002, but talks with then-Gov. Mike Easley over the next two years did not get the Cherokees very far.
Nonetheless, according to the Asheville Citizen-Times, Gov. Perdue now says that North Carolina is not ruling out Las Vegas-style card games.
“One question that this raises is how that would square with the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, which requires that the type of gambling already be legal in the state before a tribe can do it,” Creech said. “These games are not legal in North Carolina, nor should they be.”
Specifically, the IGRA says gaming activities on Indian lands must be “located in state that permits such gaming for any purpose by any person, organization or entity.” It is unclear whether the governor intends to push for changes in statewide gambling laws or how the games could be added otherwise.
While the Citizen-Times said federal law “gives governors the authority to negotiate gambling agreements with tribes,” the IGRA does not grant that power to the executive branch but simply to the state. It was the North Carolina General Assembly that decided in 2001 to sign its compact-negotiating authority over to the governor and make the change retroactive to cover Hunt’s 1994 compact. Since the IGRA’s inception in 1988, several state Supreme Court rulings have upheld the idea that this power belongs to the legislature even when lawmakers have tried to give it away.
“Whether or not the governor has the sole authority to negotiate compact changes remains to be seen,” Creech said. “But if she does, we hope she’ll take into consideration the negative effects that gambling has on communities and families. It is also important that she consider the possible implications if the Lumbee Indian Tribe in Eastern North Carolina gains full federal recognition and eventually wins the right to conduct gambling operations. The state could hardly deny to one federally recognized tribe what it has allowed for another,” said Creech.
The most visited private tourist attraction in the state, Harrah’s 11-year-old Cherokee Casino boasts annual net profits of around $155 million from about 3.5 million visitors each year. The resort has a 597-room hotel and added 20,000 square feet to its gaming area a few years ago. Half of its profits go to run the tribe’s government; the other half is distributed to tribal members, whose payments went down 12 percent — from $4,473 to $3,892 — this year according to an Associated Press article published in June.
In addition to the money, the casino has brought in increasing crime, according to some law enforcement officials.
In a 2001 fax to then Sen. Bob Carpenter, former Haywood County Sheriff R. Tom Alexander reported a 25 percent increase in the crime rate as well as increased traffic flow with “non-stop gas drive-offs, drunk drivers, speeders and people who just can’t get back home from the casino.” During the first five years of the casino’s operation, the Jackson County police force increased by about 40 percent and the number of officers on the Cherokee reservation went up by 33 percent. According to a national study “Casinos, Crime and Community Costs,” the presence of casinos increases rates of burglary, larceny, auto theft, robbery, aggravated assault and rape.
Beyond the increased crime and cost of law enforcement is the havoc that casinos wreak on families. About 1 in 20 adults already has a gambling problem and addicted gamblers are more likely than others to turn to crime to fuel their habit. Rates of domestic violence, divorce, bankruptcy and suicide are all higher among problem gamblers. While some argue that casinos bring in millions to the economy, studies show that gamblers spend less on food, clothes and other consumer goods where their dollars could make a larger impact.
“The economic promises — although more dollars may flow in to begin with— never pan out in the long run,” said the Rev. Creech. “The societal costs are just too great, which is another reason we would not want this to expand to Eastern North Carolina, the home of the Lumbees.”
According to research by the N.C. Family Policy Council, a gambling facility in the Robeson County area would be the only casino on I-95 between New Jersey and Florida. Not only would it attract out-of-state motorists and local citizens, but it would drain commerce and tourism from other parts of the state, especially coastal communities.
“We know this is not an immediate threat as the Lumbee tribe would have to be recognized federally, procure tribal lands and win gaming rights, but the bottom line is that whatever North Carolina allows for the Cherokee, it won’t be able to refuse the Lumbee,” said the Rev. Creech. “It would be disastrous to have Las Vegas style gambling on one end the state, and all the more disastrous to have it on both ends.”