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N.C. Senate opposes Catawba casino

A bipartisan majority of senators in the N.C. General Assembly have signed a letter opposing a Congressional bill that would pave the way for a new casino to be built in Cleveland County. 

“It’s pretty exciting to see the support from the state,” said Cherokee Principal Chief Richard Sneed. 

The May 16 letter, addressed to the chairman and vice chairman of the U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, which is currently considering the bill, refers to Senate Bill 790 as a “last-ditch effort to game the system on a flawed application” and an “unprecedented overreach.”

The proposed casino, to be owned by the South Carolina-based Catawba Indian Nation, would “encroach upon Cherokee aboriginal territory defined in the Cherokee Treaty 1777 map” and “deal an economic blow to a region of the state that depends on this industry and the thousands of jobs it provides annually,” the letter said. 

“The bill would skirt the formal input process that has worked for decades and doesn’t allow input from the state or the people who live near the proposed site,” the letter said.

It was initiated by Sen. Jim Davis, R-Franklin, and is signed by 38 of the 50 senators, including 21 Republicans and 17 Democrats. Davis said that tally doesn’t necessarily mean that 12 senators are opposed — members who represent areas likely to benefit economically from the proposed casino weren’t asked to sign, he said, as that would put them in an awkward position. 

Sneed said he’s glad to see the letter addressing the state sovereignty issues involved with the bill, as S.790 would exempt the Catawba from existing laws requiring input from local communities and state government. 

“There’s not a lot of discussion about that, but there’s a whole other aspect of the story,” Sneed said. 

 

Background on the bill 

Introduced by South Carolina Sen. Lindsay Graham, S.790 is co-sponsored by North Carolina senators Thom Tillis and Richard Burr. It would authorize the Catawba — a federally recognized tribe with a reservation in Rock Hill, South Carolina — to own a gaming facility on a 16.5-acre piece of land in Kings Mountain, North Carolina, and authorize the Secretary of the Interior to take that land into trust for the tribe. The bill states that the facility would comply with the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act but be exempt from Section 20 of that law. 

Section 20 relates to gaming on lands acquired after Oct. 17, 1988. No gaming can occur on such lands unless they are contiguous to the boundaries of the reservation or if the tribe had no reservation on that date, the law says — but the prohibition can be lifted. One way that happens is when the Secretary of the Interior determines that a gaming establishment on newly acquired lands “would be in the best interest of the Indian tribe and its members, and would not be detrimental to the surrounding community.” In that case, however, the governor of the state where gaming is to occur must agree with the secretary’s decision.

Currently, North Carolina has only two casinos, both owned by the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. About 30 percent of the customers who visit Harrah’s Cherokee Casinos in Cherokee and Murphy live closer to Kings Mountain than to the Qualla Boundary, meaning that a new casino in Cleveland County would likely hurt Harrah’s bottom line. The casino is an economic powerhouse in Western North Carolina, employing 5 percent of the far western counties’ workforce, forming the lion’s share of the tribe’s annual budget — which tops half a billion dollars — and providing revenue for the twice-yearly per capita disbursements tribal members receive.

Haywood County, Waynesville, Canton, Swain County, Bryson City, Jackson County, Sylva, Dillsboro, Webster, Forest Hills, Clay County, Hayesville, Graham County, Cherokee County, Andrews and Murphy have all passed resolutions stating the casinos’ importance to the regional economy and their opposition to the proposed legislation. The votes were nearly all unanimous, the exceptions being one no vote in Webster and two in Cherokee County. 

As proposed, said Davis, the bill “just violates the agreement that’s been in place for years.”

“The casino and the tribe, their pay is equal to just about anybody around here and their benefits are the best in the state,” he said. “It would just have a negative impact to the gaming operations, so we thought we would let them know we didn’t think much of that whole process.”

 

The Catawba response 

The Catawba don’t see it that way. 

In a written statement, Catawba Chief Bill Harris called the letter “the latest in a series of obstructive moves (by the Cherokee) designed to hurt our Nation.”

Those moves include, according to the statement, securing the opposition to S.790 of U.S. Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto’s, who is from Nevada, the state where Harrah’s operator Caesars Entertainment is headquartered; “falsely stating” that the Catawba have no roots in North Carolina, despite the listing of six counties as part of the tribe’s service area and widespread use of the word “Catawba” in North Carolina place names; and opposing the economic interests of people in the Cleveland County area, who could benefit from the proposed casino. 

“North Carolina is a gaming state. Its government operates a state lottery and there are two Cherokee-affiliated casinos operating in Western North Carolina,” said Harris. “The Catawba Indian Nation does not seek preferential treatment. Instead, we only seek to be treated fairly and equitably by the U.S. government, as our Cherokee brothers and sisters are treated. We look forward to joining hands with the Cherokee in solidarity, as we improve the lives of Native Americans and create more economic opportunities for the people of the great state of North Carolina.” 

The Catawba previously had federal recognition as a tribe but lost it in 1959, gaining it back following a 1993 settlement agreement with Congress. The Catawba received a 630-acre tract near Rock Hill as their reservation, and the agreement laid out the process for expanding the reservation, which today encompasses 1,000 acres. 

The settlement agreement contains extensive references to South Carolina and how the tribe is to interact with the state, all of which is considered to be in the tribe’s service area. The service area also includes six counties in North Carolina — Cleveland County is one of them — but the settlement agreement doesn’t specify what the tribe’s relationship with North Carolina’s government should look like. 

As the Catawba tell it, Congress had always intended to allow the tribe to take land into trust in both states, but the final language didn’t reflect that intention. S.790 merely seeks to clarify the intent of the existing agreement, they say. 

Sneed says that assertion doesn’t line up. 

“The language matters,” he said. “If it had been the intent of Congress back in 1993 to allow the Catawbas to take land into trust in North Carolina, they would have said so.”

Taking land into trust is an ordeal that requires generous amounts of time and money, and the reason for which the land is being taken into trust impacts how difficult the process is. Cherokee has an application in right now to take land into trust in Swain County for the purpose of housing. 

“That’s completely different,” said Sneed. “As soon as you put on that trust application ‘for the purpose of gaming,’ that triggers Section 20 of IGRA and at the end of that process the governor can still not sign off on it, so you can spend all that time, money, energy and effort in a 10-year or more process and then have the governor of the state not sign off on it.”

Cherokee did not have to go through that process with its casinos because its casinos are considered on-reservation gaming, meaning Section 20 doesn’t apply. The casino in Cleveland County would be considered off-reservation gaming, something that would typically trigger the Section 20 process, though under S.790 that process would be bypassed. 

To complicate the matter, IGRA does not currently apply to the Catawba at all, as stated in the 1993 settlement. Instead, the tribe’s ability to run gaming operations is governed by state law — that is, South Carolina law. Despite multiple efforts, the tribe hasn’t had any success with getting gaming approved on its South Carolina lands. 

 

Shift in position for Tillis 

This is not the first time the General Assembly has authored a letter opposing efforts to allow a Catawba casino in Kings Mountain. 

In 2013, 103 members of the N.C. House of Representatives wrote to then-Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell to “express our serious opposition to any attempt by a federally recognized tribe from outside the State of North Carolina to have lands taken into trust by the Department of the Interior and have those lands deemed eligible for class II or class III Indian gambling.” The letter was written after the Catawba applied to the department asking for permission to open a casino on the same Kings Mountain property. 

At the top of the list of signatures is that of Tillis, who at the time was Speaker of the N.C. House. Now, U.S. Senator Tillis is on the opposite end of the equation, co-sponsoring the bill to allow the casino. 

Tillis’ office did not respond to a request for comment asking what prompted his shift in position but sent The Smoky Mountain News a statement on S.790 last month, April 23. 

“Currently, the U.S. Department of Interior does not believe it has the authority to make a decision on whether it can take land into trust in North Carolina on behalf of the Catawba Nation,” the statement reads. “Senator Tillis joined Senators Graham and Burr to introduce a bill that simply clarifies whether the DOI has that authority. Generally, this process is long and burdensome for Tribes and no exception will be made for the Catawba Tribe, and they must ultimately gain approval from the Department of Interior and the state governments of North Carolina and South Carolina in order to move forward. Additionally, details like tax revenue would be determined through state compacts. Senator Tillis understands and appreciates the perspectives of North Carolinians who either support or oppose this project. That is why this legislation clarifies what authority the DOI has and then defers to local and state leaders to make an ultimate decision.”

Burr’s office responded to a request for comment on the N.C. Senate letter with an email laying out background information on S.790 but declined to offer a public comment on the issue. 

As of press time, Rep. Mark Meadows, R-Asheville, had not responded for a request for comment on S.790. His office said that it doesn’t typically comment on Senate legislation. 

The Senate Committee on Indian Affairs held a hearing on the bill May 1 but has taken no further action yet. To move forward, the bill will need to receive a favorable vote from the committee for a chance to get voted on by the Senate as a whole.

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