Under the Dome

Dome: NC lawmakers line up against potential Catawba casino

September 3, 2013 

House Speaker Thom Tillis and more than 100 House lawmakers signed a letter Tuesday to oppose a potential Catawba Nation casino in North Carolina.

The letter is directed to U.S. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell in an effort to block the South Carolina tribe’s efforts to acquire lands to establish a gaming operation north of the state line. The federal agency must take the lands into a trust for gaming to occur on the land.

The Catawbas are exploring land in Cleveland County along Interstate 85 for a potential gaming facility that could include Las Vegas-style live dealers and slot machines. Local officials are touting it as an economic development effort, and a top official in Gov. Pat McCrory’s administration visited the site earlier this year.

Since The News & Observer first reported the visit, McCrory’s office has distanced the governor from project, saying it is a local initiative. The governor would need to sign a compact to allow the top tier gaming but the tribe could open a slot-like bingo operation without state approval.

The effort, spearheaded by Speaker Pro Tem Paul “Skip” Stam, an Apex Republican and gambling opponent, included 101 signatures at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday. The bipartisan list represents nearly 85 percent of the 120-member House. Democratic leader Larry Hall and deputy leader Michael Wray were among those who signed it.

The brief letter expresses the signatories’ “serious opposition” to any attempt by a tribe located outside the state from acquiring lands for gaming. It also asks for notification if the Catawbas file an application to move forward with the project.

Torching bridges

A long-time regulator at the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources left her job at the regional office in Asheville on Friday. Before she left, Susan Wilson wrote a “Dear John” letter to DENR secretary John Skvarla.

It was not a cheery goodbye note. Wilson does not agree with the state’s new outlook on environmental regulation, and she criticized the McCrory administration’s restructuring of the department and described the focus on customer service as a “smokescreen for a very extremist republican agenda.” She added a “take this job and shove it” YouTube link to her email.

Wilson said in a telephone interview Tuesday afternoon that she retired after about 24-1/2 years, “a little sooner than I wanted to.”

She said she gave a lot of thought to what she wrote. “You don’t do that lightly,” she said. “I lit the fuse and burned the bridges.”

A DENR spokesman said Skvarla will be responding.

More objections to raises

The N.C. Association of Educators called for an investigation Tuesday into raises granted to Gov. Pat McCrory’s former campaign aides after the governor had called for a freeze on wage increases.

It’s the legislature’s job to examine “the glaring scandal over taxpayer-funded pay raises,’ NCAE President Rodney Ellis said Tuesday morning at a news conference outside the Legislative Building.

Public attention has focused on two 24-year-old McCrory campaign staffers, Ricky Diaz and Matt McKillip, who went on to work at the state Department of Heath and Human Services for salaries of $85,000 and $87,500.

McCrory has used cost overruns in Medicaid to explain why teachers did not get raises this year, Ellis said, yet the same agency that runs Medicaid is “granting huge raises for the politically connected.”

In the last two weeks, House Minority Leader Larry Hall of Durham and Senate Minority Leader Martin Nesbitt of Asheville called on Republican legislative leaders to hold committee meetings Tuesday to discuss DHHS salaries.

No DHHS-related committee meetings were scheduled. Jordan Shaw, spokesman for House Speaker Thom Tillis, said the Joint Legislative Oversight Committee on Health and Human Services would be the proper forum for those topics.

Staff writers Lynn Bonner and John Frank

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