North Carolina politicians may not be in favor of gaming, but they will go all in for the money that it promises.
When Gov. Bev Perdue signed the bill allowing North Carolina’s Cherokee casino to offer Las Vegas-style card games on June 6, she vowed the deal would put money in North Carolina classrooms and add 400 jobs to the western part of the state.
If the Harrah’s Cherokee Casino has similar fiscal results as those recorded in a 2011 report by the Frank Hawkins Kenan Institute of Private Enterprise, about $380 million will be generated in revenue and the casino will employ five percent of the region’s workers.
Gaming has been a hotly contested issue in North Carolina for years, as social conservatives worry that corruption, addiction and crime will accompany legalized gambling. But the passage of this bill reflects how moral objections can get pushed aside in times of economic hardship.
“They are grasping at straws trying to increase revenue,” said Ed Kilgore, pastor at Acquoni Baptist Chapel in Cherokee. Kilgore believes the financial benefits from the casino do not outweigh the moral loss. “You cannot establish a society from that which is sinful,” he said.
Other community members disagree. “It is almost morally irresponsible to not buy into gaming and its impact on the economy,” said Vickie Bradley, deputy health officer for the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians Health and Medical Division.
Bradley, who grew up in Cherokee and is a member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, said she has personally witnessed the positive impacts of gaming on the health and livelihood of families in the community.
“We face the same social determinants – poverty, unemployment, chronic disease – that other populations do,” Bradley said. “Gaming has increased the possibility of families pulling themselves out of those positions.”
According to Bradley, 28 percent of funding for the Cherokee health system comes from gaming – a source she does not see an alternative for.
Neither does Susan Jenkins, executive director of the Cherokee Preservation Foundation. The foundation, which is funded by the tribe’s gaming revenues, provides grants to organizations that reinvest in the region.
Jenkins believes it’s about more than the money. “The foundation’s relationship with the community is not transactional but transformational,” she said.
Although the Cherokee Preservation Foundation has given nearly $60 million in grants to the community in the past 10 years, Jenkins said these contributions materialize into more than cash benefits. “We help create a sustainable future by funding programs that help the community help themselves.”
Despite these benefits, politicians are still slow to whole-heartedly support gaming — whether it’s the Cherokee casino, the lottery or online sweepstakes.
A day after Perdue signed the Cherokee gaming bill, she pushed for North Carolina to regulate and tax online sweepstakes games to help offset cuts to education spending. Perdue argued that as long as gaming is legal, the state might as well take advantage of the revenue.
The Legislature banned sweepstake machines in 2010, but the state Court of Appeals struck down the ban. The ruling has been appealed to the state Supreme Court and is waiting to be heard.
Despite Perdue’s push for regulation and taxing of sweepstakes, she made sure to emphasize that she was not pro-gaming. A number of Democratic representatives have backed Perdue saying they wish for gaming to be illegal, but will utilize the funding until it is outlawed.
For people like Kilgore, this mentality is a slippery slope. “Our economy here is built on a house of cards,” Kilgore said. “It could collapse at any time.”
For people like Jenkins, this mentality ignores the realities of gaming.
“I think there is fear mongering,” Jenkins said. “A lot of the arguments against gambling are misconceptions and speculation.”
Regardless, it appears gaming in North Carolina is here to stay – as long as dollar signs are part of the equation.