PEMBROKE — Members of Robeson County’s legislative delegation, as well as the chairwoman of the Lumbee Tribe, say they oppose the Eastern Band of Cherokee’s attempts to obtain exclusive rights to gaming in North Carolina.
“I don’t think an exclusive right to gaming for the Cherokee would be fair to other tribes,” said state Rep. Garland Pierce, a Democrat representing Robeson, Hoke and Scotland counties. “To me, it is more of a fairness issue than anything else.”
State Rep. G.L. Pridgen, a Republican representing Robeson, Hoke and Scotland counties, goes further in his opposition.
“I’m not for extending gambling anywhere,” Pridgen said. “You can’t only look at the revenues and jobs that might be created. Gambling is addictive and hurts people … . I want to see how the final law is written and whether the revenues and job creation offset any damages caused by gambling.”
Pridgen said he is strongly opposed to granting exclusive rights.
“Why should we give exclusive rights for anything?” Pridgen said.
The Cherokee tribe has indicated in negotiations with Gov. Beverly Perdue that it wants to be identified as the exclusive gaming operator in North Carolina west of Interstate 95, excluding the counties where I-95 is located, according to information obtained by The Associated Press through a public records request to Perdue’s office. The Cherokee and governor are negotiating changes to the tribe’s current gambling compact so that the tribe can offer games with live dealers. Currently, the Cherokee can only offer video-based games at the Harrah’s Cherokee Casino and Hotel, located on the tribe’s reservation.
According to the Associated Press, a recent Cherokee proposal claims that live games could create 400 jobs at the tribe’s casino, as well as boost the region’s economy by attracting more visitors. The proposal also says that for exclusive gaming rights, the Cherokee would give the state 8.5 percent of the gross revenues from the new table games, and up to the same percentage of revenues of similar games should the tribe operate casinos on land it owns in five counties in the western part of the state.
With the home of many Lumbee tribal members along I-95 in Robeson County, the Lumbee Tribe has been closely watching the ongoing negotiations. The Lumbees have been trying to get federal recognition for years, which could enable them to operate casinos. The recognition bill now pending in the Congress prohibits gaming if federal recognition is approved. And gaming by Lumbees would have to be approved by tribal members during a referendum.
“Historically the Cherokee have not supported the Lumbee in their recognition efforts,” said state Rep. Charles Graham, a Democrat and Lumbee tribal member who represents Robeson County. “I am trying to support the Lumbee position. We want the Cherokee to support our cause of federal recognition, or at least not actively oppose it.
“Let’s try to mend our wounds and move forward so everyone can have the best economic opportunities … . We should support each other,” Graham said. “I know both sides are passionate about the issue.”
Graham said that the exclusivity issue is a concern of all the tribes in North Carolina.
“In my mind it is economically unfair for any one tribe to have exclusive rights to gaming,” Graham said.
Sharon Hunt, the tribe’s chairwoman, said last week that she has met with the governor to raise her tribe’s concerns.
“The governor listened,” Hunt said. “I told her she should look at this as an economic issue, not as a federal recognition issue.
“The Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina supports the economic development endeavors of all the tribes in North Carolina. A tribal government pursuing economic development as it sees fit is one of the most prominent and overt expressions of tribal sovereignty,” Hunt said. “This expression should be given wide latitude as long as a tribe’s activity does not infringe on the sovereign rights of neighboring tribes. This can be accomplished by limiting exclusivity to an area in reasonable proximity to the negotiating tribe’s tribal territory. We are confident in the governor’s ability to protect the sovereign rights of the tribe’s recognized by the state of North Carolina.”
The newly elected Lumbee tribal chairman, Paul Brooks, who could take over the tribe’s leadership as early as Monday, told The Robesonian he is not ready to make a statement concerning the Cherokee’s negotiations with the state. However, Brooks, who is currently chairman of the state’s Commission of Indian Affairs, did say he is against any exclusive statewide gaming rights.
“All of the tribes (in North Carolina) are against exclusivity,” he said.
While negotiations between the governor, legislative leaders and Cherokee leaders continue, state legislators prepare to return to Raleigh on Nov. 27. While the Governor’s Office is the key negotiator with the Cherokee, the legislature has significant influence over details of any agreement because both the House and Senate will be asked to change current gambling laws to allow for any new arrangements.
All Robeson County House representatives say any legislation would first be addressed in the Senate. Sen. Michael Walters, a Democrat who represents Robeson and Hoke counties, could not be reached for comment.
A study by an institute connected to the Kenan-Flager Business School at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill says that 3.6 million people each year visit the Cherokee casino, according to The Associated Press. The casino, the report states, employs almost 1,700 people.
Profits from the casino are distributed to tribal members, the tribal government, and a foundation that provides community grants.
Reach staff writer Bob Shiles at (910) 272-6117 or firstname.lastname@example.org