RALEIGH — With echoes of the contentious state lottery debate, the N.C. House gave initial approval Thursday to legislation allowing new casinos and Las Vegas-style live-dealer games on Cherokee tribal lands in western North Carolina.
The measure sparked a colorful discussion that strayed from the terms of the deal into the morality of gambling.
Entering the debate, the legislation faced an uncertain future with an unusual coalition of socially conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats aligned against it. A number of lawmakers remained undecided until the final minute.
The 66-49 approval surprised some lawmakers but not others given the heavy lobbying from the tribe, which seeded the political ground with more than $1 million in campaign money in the past decade.
The legislation – SB 582 – is needed to authorize a gambling compact signed last month by Gov. Bev Perdue and the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians.
The agreement would permit the tribe to offer live-dealer games, ranging from blackjack to roulette, at its existing Harrah’s Cherokee Casino and two new facilities being planned in the next 10 years for other tribal lands in a five-county area west of Interstate 26. The state will receive a small percentage of the revenues from the new games, an average $2 million to $3 million a year, with the initial funds going toward education.
Supporters downplayed the gaming expansion and touted the potential economic development, citing a tribe-sponsored study projecting 400 new jobs and millions in additional investment from new casinos that will attract more tourists to the area.
A main sticking point in the negotiations was the number of new gambling facilities. The initial compact signed by the governor in November didn’t include a limit. The Senate approved a version limiting the number to five casinos, and the House whittled it to three locations unless more are authorized by future legislation. Lawmakers are expected to try to add an amendment to prohibit new casinos when the bill returns to the floor Tuesday for a final vote.
On the floor, two dozen lawmakers spoke, and the debate quickly strayed from the bill language.
Democratic and Republican critics rehashed arguments about how gambling attracts crime, targets the poor and erodes the state’s social structure.
“This will harm the people of North Carolina. It will drive up crime rates,” said Rep. Mark Hilton, a Conover Republican.
Other lawmakers sought to quell talk about the gambling and the state lottery, saying that debate is long passed.
“Why don’t we accept the fact we have gambling in our state already and what this bill does is provide more jobs for an industry already in our state?” argued Durham Democrat Mickey Michaux, a self-described avid gambler.