By L.A. Williams, Correspondent
Christian Action League
RALEIGH — Just because North Carolina allows video poker on Cherokee lands doesn’t mean the state has to make it legal elsewhere. That’s the upshot of a ruling issued Tuesday by the N.C. Court of Appeals, a ruling that overturned Wake County Judge Howard E. Manning’s earlier order and should sound the death knell for proposed video poker legislation.
“This is truly good news,” said the Rev. Mark Creech, executive director of the Christian Action League. “It essentially closes the door on video poker expansion and gives the General Assembly the opportunity to work on legislation to further close the loopholes in the ban.”
After more than a dozen years of illegal payouts and increases in gambling addiction not to mention outcry from all 100 Tar Heel sheriffs, legislators pulled the plug on video poker in North Carolina in 2006 with the exception of games operated by the Eastern Band of Cherokees since tribal lands fall under the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act.
The video poker industry argued that the state could not keep its 2004 gambling pact with the Cherokees without granting the same privileges elsewhere.
But Judge Robert Hunter wrote in the Appeals Court ruling, with Judges Martha Geer and Linda Stephens concurring, that “state law providing the Tribe with exclusive gaming rights does not violate federal Indian gaming law.”
“North Carolina’s decision to permit tribes to operate class III gaming facilities within the context of IGRA and the compacts, while denying those rights to other persons, organizations, and entities, is a policy judgment, which whether one agrees with it or not, does not conflict with IGRA’s goal of maintaining state authority while protecting Indian gaming form discrimination,” he added. “By contrast, to interpret IGRA to require the states to choose between no class III gaming anywhere and class III gaming everywhere would not further any of IGRA’s goals and would limit the states’ authority and flexibility without any resulting benefit to the tribes.”
The ruling points to the fact that the main purpose of the IGRA is to promote Indian gaming as a means to boost tribal economic development and self-sufficiency and that it was never intended to “establish parity between Indian and non-Indian gaming enterprises.”
Bolstered by the video poker’s legal triumph in February — though Manning had stayed his ruling pending appeal — Rep. Earl Jones (D-Guilford) had argued that “sweepstakes games” tied to a remote server were already being played throughout the state and that the N.C. Legislature should bring back video poker and promote and tax the games, which he said would bring in some $500 million. The Legislative Black Caucus and the State Employees Association of North Carolina also promoted the plan, which would earmark 20 percent of the proceeds for state coffers.
While William Thevaos, president of the Entertainment Group of North Carolina, told the News and Observer that his trade group would continue to push the proposed legislation, it is likely to get little traction now that the ban has been upheld.
“If the ruling had gone the other way, it would have thrown the gate open and the General Assembly would have been pressured to do something to work with the industry,” said the Rev. Creech. “But the fact the ban has been upheld should take the wind out of the sails of video poker promoters. I can only hope lawmakers will seek to find a way to close the loopholes that the industry has found to allow for these abominable sweepstakes games, which are now being played.”
One negative, however, is that the ruling may fuel the fire for more gambling at Cherokee. Principal Chief Michell Hicks told the Asheville Citizen-Times that he is hopeful the ruling will bring “the opportunity to look at other things.”
During a visit to Jackson County late last summer, Governor Bev 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 most visited private tourist attraction in the state, Harrah’s 11-year-old Cherokee Casino boasts annual net profits of around $155 million each year. Half of its profits go to run the tribe’s government; the other half is distributed to tribal members.