Introducing ‘Vegas style’ gambling at Cherokee Casino a safe bet
When the N.C. Senate reconvenes on Sept. 12 they will likely be voting on whether or not to ratify an amended gaming compact between the state and the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians that would allow for live table games at Harrah’s Cherokee Casino & Hotel resort. The North Carolina General Assembly passed a Joint Resolution (938) in July that declared which legislation and bills would be considered in September.
According to the Resolution, the Senate will address “Bills to ratify and make statutory conforming changes pursuant to a Tribal Compact negotiated by the Governor.”
According to two state senators, there are enough votes in the North Carolina State Senate to pass the ratified amendment.
During a visit to the Cherokee Indian Reservation on Aug. 10, The President Pro tempore in the State Senate, Senator Phil Berger (R-Guilford, Rockingham) and Senator Tom Apodaca (R-Buncombe, Henderson, and Polk) met with Vice Chief Larry Blythe and assured members of the Tribe that if a vote was to occur on Sept. 12, it would be in favor of allowing gaming tables.
Blythe feels that the expansion is necessary in order for the Cherokee Casino to keep up with its competitors. According to Blythe, the expansion means adding “another offering that other casino business already have. We want to stay competitive.”
According to Senator Berger, the possibility of Class three, or “Vegas style” gambling, all depends if Gov. Bev Perdue and the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians complete negotiations to amend a gaming compact. “The governor is in the process of negotiating things with the Tribe—we are waiting on her to finalize that,” said Berger. “And when that is complete, I expect that it will have no trouble passing in the Senate.
Berger is adamant that “Vegas style” gambling will have a positive effect on the entire western region of North Carolina. “One of the reasons I think why there’s support in the Senate for the governor to ratify the amendment is because of the positive impact,” noted Berger. “The casino has had and has potential to substantially increase a positive impact on employment in Western North Carolina.”
According to Berger, the casino is currently one of the largest employers in the state, and by adding gaming tables, those numbers will undoubtedly grow. “During these economic times, it’s important for us to have an understanding of that impact,” said Berger.
Results found during a study conducted by the University of North Carolina’s Kenan Flagler School of Business stated that the 3.6 million visitors to the Harrah’s Cherokee Casino & Hotel pours $380 million into the local economy each year.
Blythe estimated that gaming tables could add between 300-400 job opportunities to the region.
“The employment opportunities possible are significant,” Blythe commented. “Currently we operate under digital machines. The expansion would replace those machines with a human, and a real paycheck, and real benefits. Usually you are replacing humans with machines, and we are trying to do the opposite.”
Berger noted that it isn’t about the number of jobs possibilities that might arise, but more importantly, that the jobs that stand to be added would be well paying jobs.
Berger mentioned that during their visit to the reservation, Apodaca explained that many of the questions that surrounded the possibilities of amending the gaming compact have been resolved.
Several groups and organizations are opposed to a possible expansion and implementation of “Vegas style” gambling. The North Carolina Family Policy Council, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization aimed toward providing research and education on public policy issues that affect the family, have been diligently lobbying against a ratified amendment to the gambling compact.
Bill Brooks, president and executive director of the Family Policy Council, said that the organization isn’t solely against the expansion of the Cherokee Casino, but instead, “we are opposed to gambling expansion in general.”
According to Brooks, incorporation of live tables would provide the general public with more opportunities to gamble and that more people will begin gambling, allowing an increase in the percentage of individuals who will become compulsive gamblers. Brooks explained that compulsive gambling can have the same devastating effect on the family that alcoholism has, and that of the individuals who gamble, 40 percent are considered to be compulsive.
Another issue that The Family Policy Council wishes to address is that if North Carolina approves live gambling for the Tribe, that it will be in direct conflict with federal gambling laws. Brooks explained that the Cherokee Indian Reservation first introduced gambling with bingo games. Because the Cherokee Reservation is considered its own sovereign nation, it is not subject to state laws, but instead follows federal mandates.
According to Brooks, the original federal gambling law stated that after the Tribe showed interest in wanting to incorporate gambling on the Reservation, they introduced bingo. Federal law ordered that the Tribe be subject to all North Carolina gambling laws. Brooks said that soon after bingo was introduced, the Tribe sought permission by the state to expand to video poker games. Although video poker is now illegal in North Carolina, at the time of the inquiry it was permitted, which allowed the tribe to continue providing video poker games and ultimately led to the expansion and development of the Casino.
Brooks is concerned that by requesting permission to implement live gambling, the Tribe will be in violation of state law. “They want to do a type of gambling beyond what the state law allows because the bottom line is, live tables are illegal.” According to Brooks, if that state does grant the Tribe the privilege of expanding, it will trigger a devastating domino effect for the surrounding areas.
Brooks fears that if the state allows the Tribe to introduce live gambling that it will result in a statewide approval that may eventually expand to neighboring states. Brooks stated that a special clause in the U.S. Constitution states that the federal government cannot permit someone to do something that is prohibited to everyone else. According to Brooks, if the Tribe is allowed “Vegas style” gambling it is likely that another Casino, possibly even the Harrah’s corporation could, “bring a law suit in N.C. court that argues the state doesn’t have the right to approve the Tribe’s request.”
As a result, the court would likely rule to open gambling in all of N.C. “There are a handful of legislators that would like to see that happen,” noted Brooks.
Half of the revenue from the casino is used to finance the Reservation’s government, the other half is used to finance payments distributed to Tribe members twice a year, known as per capita. The incorporation of “Vegas style” gambling is understandably intended to increase the overall profit margin, providing more money for the government and for Tribe members. With a financial incentive, it’s difficult to oppose the gambling expansion and to consider the detrimental effects it could have on the community.
If live gambling spreads throughout North Carolina, neighboring states could then begin lobbying to bring the same laws to their respective states to compensate for revenue loss to N.C., and according to Brooks, “Casinos and gambling would be as prominent on the East Coast as it is out West.”
“I’m sure they planned this all along,” said Brooks. He explained that six or seven years ago a bill “popped up” that would authorize “Vegas style” gambling for non-profits. Brooks explained that if that bill was passed, which is wasn’t, it would have legalized the equipment and would have opened the door for the Cherokees.
According to Brooks, other organizations similar to the Family Policy Council are opposed to the Casino’s expansion.”It’s not a done deal yet,” he said. “We are using research and education to spread the word on the behind the senses push to legalize “Vegas style” gambling. Agreeing that live gambling will undoubtedly bring more people to the area, Brooks speculates that it will only attract people who only come to gamble and one important question he feels the Senate should ask themselves is “Is this what we want?”, questioned Brooks. “I’d say no, no it’s not,” he commented.
Blythe explained that because of the special regulations of the Reservation, a statewide approval of live gambling would ultimately be up to the governor’s office and should have no effect on the Tribe’s gaming compact negotiations. “What we are allowed is based on federal laws because we are on federal land — it should have an impact on the rest of the state.”
Learning from the Past
When the casino was first opened in 1997, it was understood that alcohol would not be permitted because the rest of the Cherokee Reservation is considered “dry” and prohibits alcohol sales. In June of 2009 members of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians approved alcohol sales throughout the casino.
As of right now, the Casino must purchase alcohol from neighboring counties. In June of this year, a bill (SB 324-ABC LAW/Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians) supported by Senator Apodaca, was ratified and signed by Gov. Perdue that allows the Tribe to purchase alcohol directly from a warehouse in Raleigh. The Bill also allows the Tribe to operate its own Alcohol Beverage Control Commission, rather than being subject to the statewide system.
The Bill also exempts the Tribe from having to follow state laws governing happy hours, advertising, and even prevents the state from intervening in the event that a Cherokee distribution point breaks the law. It also opens a door for the entire Reservation to begin serving alcohol.
Alcohol was introduced on the Reservation in steps using the Casino as a gateway. Now it could be said that live gambling is being introduced in the same step by step process.
Berger believes that any relevant negative impacts would already be apparent, if they were going to exist at all.
“If there was going to be negative impacts, you would have already seen it from what’s already taking place,” he explained. “From what I’ve seen, there has been very positive revenue generation, that has been put to good use,” Berger noted, “and employment has been brought to a part of the state that, for years, has dealt with hardships.”
Brooks argues that no amount of money is worth the detrimental effect it can have on the family. “It is just like having an alcoholic in the family: you don’t just hurt yourself, you hurt your family, too.”
All hangs in the balance while Gov. Perdue is finalizing negotiations with the Tribe. If they reach an agreement, the Senate will vote on Sept. 12, and according to Berger, live gambling will begin being implemented effective almost immediately.
“If they reach an agreement for an expansion and the implementation of live gambling, I see it being something that is approved, and as far as a timeline of becoming effective is concerned, I see it not taking very long,” said Berger.
Blythe also anticipates a quick transition because he believes that when the expansion was planned, the possibility of incorporating live games was probably taken into consideration.
“It should be a pretty quick transition if and when it’s approved — a matter of a few weeks.”