NC House gives key approval to Cherokee gambling expansion

The state House tentatively approved Thursday allowing new forms of gambling at the Cherokee Indian casino in western North Carolina.

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RALEIGH, N.C. — Live dealers would be able to run table games at the Cherokee Indian casino in western North Carolina under a bill the House gave tentative approval Thursday. 

The Cherokee also could open two more casinos under the bill, which passed 66-to49 Thursday afternoon. 

House members are scheduled to vote again Tuesday, when opponents are expected to try to limit the measure through amendments. If approved again by the House, it would return for a final vote in the Senate before heading on to Gov. Bev Perdue for her signature.

"This means a lot to the folks in western North Carolina," said Rep. Roger West, R-Cherokee, telling his colleagues that the move would bring jobs to an impoverished region of the state. 

The proposed law allows a new compact signed by Gov. Bev Perdue and the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians to go into effect. It allows the Harrah's Cherokee casino, which currently has just electronic games, to offer live dealer games like poker, craps and roulette.

The Senate already has passed a version of the bill, which proponents said would bring 400 more jobs to the casino and give the state a cut of the gross proceeds from the new games — a first for North Carolina. The 30-year compact could generate $90 million to the state and school districts that for now will receive the proceeds for classroom personnel and materials.

"This is the worst deal for the state of North Carolina that I have ever seen," said Rep. Paul "Skip" Stam, R-Wake. He said the proposed law was vulnerable to court challenges that could allow gambling to go on without the state getting a cut of the revenue.

Unlike many bills this session, differences over this measure did not break along party lines. Of the 68 Republicans who control the House, 37 voted against the bill. Democrats voted 36-12 in favor. Five lawmakers did not vote. 

That division was on display this morning during a House Republican Caucus meeting that was partially open to the public. 

Michell Hicks, the principal chief of the 15,000-member Eastern Band, told the caucus he acknowledges the moral criticism by some about gambling and casinos. But he said tribal leaders have been good stewards of the opportunity offered by the federal government to open casinos and to help their people and the region.

The Cherokee has used casino profits to improve education on its lands and created a 300-mile broadband fiber ring in western North Carolina.

"We've got a responsibility for our people," Hicks said, but the tribe also wants to help the citizens of North Carolina. The jobs will provide $65,000 in salary and benefits on average, he said. More than 80 percent of the jobs at the casino complex are held by non-tribal members. Other tribal casinos in the region already offer live dealers.

"We're being squeezed by competition," Hicks said.

After the House vote in the afternoon, opponents said they were disappointed by the vote.

Bill Brooks, with the N.C. Family Policy Council, said many members were mislead by promises of jobs. He said it's unlikely that the Cherokee would be able to deliver on their promise of 400 new positions any time soon.

"They're talking about serving their tribe of 15,000 people. We're talking about its impact on a state of 9 million people," Brooks said. 

Brooks and other opponents said allowing for table games expanded gambling in a way likely to increase crime, gambling addition and siphon money out of the economy from those who could least afford it.

"This will harm the people of North Carolina. It will drive up crime rates. It is not a good deal," said Rep. Mark Hilton, R-Catawba, a social conservative who has been one of the measure's loudest critics. 

Other lawmakers, like Rep. Bill Owens, D-Pasquotank, said the General Assembly needed to acknowledge there was already gambling going on in the state and a demand for more.

"They run a first-class operation," Owens said of the Casino.


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