Politics & Government

Opposition from NC lawmakers mounts to proposed Catawba casino in Kings Mountain

A growing number of North Carolina elected officials — including Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper — are fighting legislation that would open the door for a Catawba Indian casino in Kings Mountain.

The proposal pits leading Republican lawmakers against the state’s two GOP senators. It also sets Sen. Thom Tillis, who co-sponsored the measure, against a potential Republican primary rival.

Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina introduced a bill in March that would authorize the Interior department to allow the S.C.-based Catawba Nation to acquire 16 acres near Kings Mountain for a casino complex first proposed in 2013. Supporters say the project would bring 4,000 jobs and an annual economic boost of $350 million to the town 35 miles west of Charlotte.

The bill, also co-sponsored by GOP Sen. Richard Burr, has reignited a feud between the Carolinas’ two biggest Indian tribes over centuries-old land claims and Vegas-style gambling. At stake is a piece of the $32 billion Indian gaming industry.

This month a bi-partisan group of 38 N.C. senators — including Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger — publicly came out in opposition to the casino and called the bill “a last-ditch effort to game the system” in a letter to the U.S. Senate Indian Affairs committee. Over 100 lawmakers signed a similar letter in 2013.

Added to the list of opponents this week was Rep. Mark Walker of Greensboro.

“Despite strong bipartisan opposition from our state and local governments, this federal overreach would give preferential treatment to a tribe recognized by South Carolina to reap benefits at the expense of North Carolinians and the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians,” Walker said in a statement. “I urge my colleagues . . . (to) ensure that North Carolinians don’t have their voices stripped away.”

Walker has declined to rule out challenging Tillis in the 2020 primary.

Cooper’s concerns

Cooper is concerned the Senate bill would limit the state’s ability to negotiate a final agreement on any casino deal, spokesman Ford Porter said. That’s because the bill would exempt the Catawbas from Section 20 of the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, a provision that appears to give the governor a strong say in any new Indian gaming in the state.

Burr spokeswoman Caitlin Carroll said the state won’t lose control.

“Far from limiting local input, this bill would prevent a major gaming facility from being built in North Carolina without the state’s approval,” she said in a statement. “The Catawba are currently exempt from the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, which means they don’t have to negotiate a tribal-state compact before building gaming facilitates like casinos. This bill . . . gives North Carolina a say on whether a casino is built near Kings Mountain.”

Tillis believes the bill simply clarifies the federal government’s role in putting the Cleveland County land into trust for the tribe, spokesman Daniel Keylin said. “Ultimately,” he said, “moving the project forward would be contingent on having the support of state officials . . . “

But Jason Giles, executive director of the National Indian Gaming Association, a national group of tribes, said Cooper “is right to worry that he won’t have the protections” of the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act process if the bill becomes law.

In an email, Giles called the normal process “quite onerous,” requiring the governor to approve the Catawba’s application to put land into federal trust as well as environmental impact studies.

Dueling tribes

The Eastern Band of Cherokees have two casinos on their 56,000-acre reservation known as The Qualla Boundary near Great Smoky Mountain National Park. Last summer they broke ground on a $250 million expansion of their casino development that will include a convention center and hotel. Each adult Cherokee gets up to $14,000 a year from casino revenues.

The Catawbas can’t put a casino on their 700-acre reservation in York County. In a 1993 agreement, they agreed to drop their claims to surrounding land around York County in exchange for $50 million and federal recognition. But the state of South Carolina drew the line at gambling, which is illegal in the state.

The Catawbas say it’s a provision of the 1993 agreement that gives them the right to own a casino in Cleveland County. That provision gave the tribe a “service area” in six N.C. counties including Mecklenburg and Cleveland. Tribe members who live in those counties are eligible for the same federal benefits and services as those living on the reservation.

But Cherokees call the Catawba effort to build a casino in North Carolina unprecedented.

“We encourage the Catawba Indian Nation to pursue an on-reservation economy in their home state of South Carolina like we have developed in our home state of North Carolina,” Chief Richard Sneed said in a statement. “This bill is a harmful precedent — the first time Congress has authorized a tribe to acquire land into trust simply to create an off-reservation casino. “

Catawba Chief Bill Harris said his tribe wants no preferential treatment.

“North Carolina is a gaming state,” he said in a statement. “Its government operates a state lottery and there are two Cherokee-affiliated casinos operating in western North Carolina. . . . (W)e only seek to be treated fairly and equitably by the U.S. government, as our Cherokee brothers and sisters are treated.”

Harris also blasted the letter from the state senators. He called it “the latest in a series of obstructive moves designed to hurt our Nation.”

“This letter is no surprise to anyone,” his statement said, “as it was signed by many of the same state legislators who signed such letters in the past, and who have received thousands upon thousands of campaign dollars from the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians.”

Campaign donations

Bob Hall, former executive director of Democracy North Carolina, reported in March that the Cherokees’ political action committee gave legislators, political committees and other candidates $570,400 in the 2018 election. With a total of $1.3 million over the last three elections, it ranks among the state’s three biggest PACs.

The Catawbas also have an influential donor.

Wallace Cheves, whose Skyboat Gaming has drawn construction plans for a Kings Mountain casino, gave $100,000 to the Republican National Committee last year. He’s also given Tillis and an allied group $20,900 since 2015, according to Federal Election Commission records. He gave Burr and a related committee $16,400 and Graham, $10,800. He co-chaired Graham’s S.C. presidential campaign in 2016.

Skyboat also has employed Cleveland County attorney Tim Moore. In a statement Thursday, Moore, now N.C. House speaker, said he’s recused himself from making any comments on the project.

Opposition to the bill isn’t coming just from lawmakers.

This month 1,200 people signed a full-page ad in the Shelby Star urging lawmakers to oppose “an industry that preys on the weakest sectors of society.” Rev. Alton Beal, president of Ambassador Baptist College in western Cleveland County, said the names were gathered in just a week.

“We only scratched the surface of the faith community,” he said.