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No to SB 790, Off-Reservation Casino

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., has introduced legislation, SB 790, that would give North Carolina land to South Carolina’s Catawba Indian Nation for an off-reservation casino.

At first glance, as they’re not making land anymore, the idea of giving away part of our state doesn’t strike us as a very good idea.

After further scrutiny, this idea looks even worse.

Some background: The Catawba say they have ancestral homelands in South and North Carolina. The tribe gained federal recognition in 1941. They terminated their tribal status in 1959 and received individual landholdings in 1962. The tribe reconsidered the termination, was recognized by the state of South Carolina in 1973 and regained federal recognition in 1993 in exchange for dropping claims to land around the York County, S.C., area. The tribe received $50 million. The agreement included a “service area” in six North Carolina counties where Catawbas live that made them eligible for the same federal benefits as Catawba on the South Carolina reservation.

Much of this seems like dry history, but it’s important viewed through the lens of SB 790. The 1993 settlement is the thin reed proponents are trying to hang a casino on.

North Carolina already has two casinos, in Murphy and Cherokee, operated by the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians (EBCI). The operations have been good community partners, are large employers and have been an economic lifesaver for counties such as Swain.

Eighty-seven percent of land in Swain is in federal ownership. (Forty percent of the Smoky Mountains National Park lies within its boundaries.) While the park draws healthy tourism business, the ownership issue means outside of tourism there’s little economic opportunity.

Enter Harrah’s Cherokee Casino.

In 1995, before Harrah’s opened, the Swain unemployment rate was 18 percent. Now it’s around 5 percent. Beyond the jobs, the Eastern Band has been a responsible steward of gaming profits, launching efforts to fight the opioid epidemic, revive spoken Cherokee – which was in danger of dying off – and myriad health and education initiatives.

It’s been a good deal.

Graham’s legislation would effectively turn back the clock on that good deal. There’s a finite amount of gamers, and Cherokee draws patrons from large population centers like Charlotte, Columbia and Greenville. With the proposed casino near King’s Mountain, they’d have a much shorter drive. The effect on the Eastern Band, Harrah’s and the oasis of jobs created in far Western North Carolina, historically and economically stressed region, would likely be akin to a series of plant closings.

Self-inflicted closings created by Sen. Graham’s bill.

Well, at least North Carolina’s U.S. Senators are rising to the fight. Right?

Not exactly. Sens. Richard Burr and Thom Tillis

, both Republicans, are cosponsors of Graham’s bill.

Here’s a fun bit of history:

In 2003 Tillis served as North Carolina House Speaker. That year he and more than 100 House legislators signed a letter to Interior Secretary Sally Jewell asking her to block a proposal for a casino complex. It appears Mr. Tillis has evolved on the issue. Needless to say the EBCI isn’t happy with these developments.

For one, Tillis was nominated to challenge D

emocratic Sen. Kay Hagan for a Senate seat in 2014 at Harrah’s Cherokee Casino Resort, whe

re the state GOP was holding its convention, so this doesn’t seem to be much in the way of a “thank you.’’ Beyond that, the Cherokee seem to have history, precedent and the law firmly on their side. “The proposed casino off of I-85 in Cleveland County,’’ the tribe said in a statement, “would encroach upon Cherokee aboriginal territory – territory ceded by the Cherokee by treaty, and territory recognized as Cherokee territory by the U.S. Indian Claims Commission. The Catawba have no valid aboriginal or historical claim to Cleveland County.”

How about the law and precedent?

North Carolina has signed a compact with the Cherokee that allows casino gaming. South Carolina has no such agreement.

Instead of working to change South Carolina law, the p

lan now is, heck, just take part of North Carolina.

SB 790 does that and OKs a casino by doing an end-run around a very great deal of law and precedent.

How unprecedented? Well …

How many times has land for a tribe been designated outside the Bureau of Indian Affairs process? Zero.

How many times in U.S. history has legislation been passed that would take away the right of a state’s governor to concur with or oppose a Department of Interior recommendation regarding a new casino? Zero.

For that matter, how many times has Congress enacted legislation to authorize an off-reservation casino? Zero.

On May 1 the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs held a hearing on SB 790, a news item completely lost in the noise of the Mueller/Barr affairs. EBCI Principal Chief Richard Sneed did notice and issued a statement that read in part, “Today’s hearing on Senate Bill 790 to give North Carolina land to the Catawba Indian Nation of South Carolina for an off-reservation casino reaffirms our concerns about this bill. Congress has never authorized an off-reservation casino by legislation, for good reason.

“The bill circumvents the federal processes that give local stakeholders – the State Senate, the Governor, community members, and interested North and South Carolinians – a voice in whether to move forward with the casino,’’ Sneed continued. “Rather than hear from interested parties, this bill silences those voices and replaces the process with backroom political dealing.”

We’re not sure why Burr and Tillis would be onboard with this.

In the case of Graham, it’s interesting to recall that Wallace Cheves formed Sky Boat LLC in 2009 to help develop Catawba gaming.

Cheves was a co-chair of Graham’s most recent presidential effort in South Carolina.

Small world.

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