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Wednesday, 28 March 2012 20:13

Cherokee and Governor massage live dealers deal

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Gov. Bev Perdue and leaders from the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians have headed back to their respective sides of the negotiating tables to tweak the landmark agreement that would permit table games, real cards and live dealers at Harrah’s Cherokee Casino and Resort.

The agreement would give the state a cut of gaming revenue in exchange for a promise of exclusivity, namely a pledge that the state wouldn’t allow any other casinos in the immediate region. The agreement is now being tweaked in hopes of satisfying legislators in the General Assembly who have yet to sign off on the deal since it was inked by the tribe and Perdue last November.

“The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians has been working diligently with the governor and the General Assembly on a new compact that will allow for live dealers at Harrah’s Cherokee Casino,” said Chief Michell Hicks in a statement. “We hope to have the new compact approved soon and be ready to take this important issue in front of the North Carolina General Assembly in the upcoming short session.”

It is still unclear exactly what portions of the compact the tribe and Perdue are hoping to renegotiate. Republican leaders in the General Assembly and Perdue had previously disagreed on whether the revenue the state collects from the tribe should go into a dedicated fund for education, as Perdue wanted, or into the general budget, which Republican legislators wanted.

The deal struck between the tribe and Perdue was the product of years of lobbying and negotiating. The clock is now ticking to get it finalized given Perdue’s announcement that she will not be seeking another term.

The tribe and governor’s office seem confident an agreement will be reached soon and the deal will get the necessarly rubber stamp from the General Assembly.

“We’ve got 10 months and an entire legislative session yet to go,” said Mark Johnson, a press officer for Perdue, in an email.

It is unclear whether the tribe would have to start back over at Square One if a new governor came into office before the agreement is finalized by the General Assembly.

Techincally, the compact already signed between the governor and the tribe is good for 30 years. Even if the General Assembly doesn’t approve it this year, it could still do so next year, or the next year, without the agreement going back to the new governor’s desk for approval.

But, a new governor could gum up the works if he wanted to, by vetoing it after the General Assmebly passes — making getting it passed before Perdue leaves office the safest bet for the tribe.

Hicks has spent his eight years in office working toward a deal, which would mean hundreds of new jobs, thousands of new tourists and millions dollars more flowing through Western North Carolina.

“If approved, this will bring more than 400 jobs to the boundary and help to create additional revenue for the casino, which will result in a positive impact not only for the Eastern Band but also for the state of North Carolina,” Hicks said.

Meanwhile, casino management is getting its ducks in a row so it will be ready to roll out live dealers if and when the General Assembly gives its blessing.

“We are looking at the many, many things that would have to happen if that is passed,” said Brooks Robinson, general manager of Harrah’s Cherokee. “We aren’t pulling too many triggers on it but we are monitoring the situation.”

The Eastern Band and Perdue initially signed a compact in late November. They had hoped the General Assembly would vote on the issue before it took its winter recess. But, Republican leaders rebuked the idea, saying they did not have adequate time to review the agreement before the break.

According to the November version of the compact, Cherokee will give the state 4 percent of gross revenue off new table games for the first five years, 5 percent for the next five, 6 percent for the next five, 7 percent for the next five and 8 percent for the final 10 years of the 30-year gaming compact.

Perdue wants the money to be placed in a trust fund and funneled directly to public education in K-12 classrooms across the state based on student population. GOP party leadership, however, wants the money to go directly into the state’s general fund with no special strings attached.

In return, the tribe would be allowed add live gaming and receive exclusive gaming territory west of I-26 in Asheville. The tribe wanted a larger swath of exclusive territory, but the state would not yield.

The tribe has reaped about $226 million a year off the casino recently. Half funds tribal government — from education to housing to health care — while half goes to tribe members in the form of per capita payments.

— Staff writer Becky Johnson contributed to this story

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