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Casino plan – including one operated by Lumbee in southeastern NC – is dead for now

By Sarah Nagem

North Carolina lawmakers say they have reached a budget deal that does not include four rural casinos, one of which would be operated by the Lumbee tribe in southeastern North Carolina. 

Although Republicans hold supermajorities in the state House and Senate, they could not agree on a proposal to expand gambling in the state. Both chambers are expected to vote this week on a budget that includes Medicaid expansion, which was briefly tied to the gambling proposal. 

The decision to delay a vote on casinos means the Lumbee tribe will have to hold off on plans to enter the gambling business, if there were any plans at all. There are many unanswered questions about the proposal, including where a Lumbee casino would be built. 

The tribe, which has 60,000 members, is based in Robeson County. But proposals say the casino could be in any of the following nine counties: Bladen, Brunswick, Columbus, Cumberland, Hoke, New Hanover, Richmond, Robeson or Scotland. 

Seven of the counties are designated by the state at Tier 1, meaning they are economically distressed. Brunswick and New Hanover are Tier 3 counties, among the least economically distressed in the state.  

Under draft legislation, the three other casinos would be built in Tier 1 counties near the state’s northern border, presumably to compete with new casinos in Virginia. The so-called “rural entertainment districts,” which would also include shopping, restaurants and other amenities, were cast by GOP leaders as a way to bring money and jobs to poor counties. 

The tribe declined to comment for this story Wednesday morning. 

State Rep. Jarrod Lowery, a Robeson County Republican and member of the Lumbee tribe, said a casino could boost a county’s annual revenue by $13 million to $17 million within five years of opening. The money would come from sales and property taxes and 5% of gaming revenue, he said.

“No matter where this happens in that region, there’s going to be a lot of jobs created,” said Lowery, whose brother, John Lowery, serves as tribal chairman. “And a lot of Robesonians are going to be able to get good-paying jobs.” 

Senate leader Phil Berger, a Rockingham County Republican, told The News & Observer that opponents of a gambling expansion, including 50,000 video lottery terminals, lost sight of what casinos could do for sparsely populated areas.  

“There’s a whole lot of talk about, ‘We need to help rural North Carolina,’” Berger said, the newspaper reported. “But when we have a proposal that actually would create over 5,000 jobs, good-paying jobs in rural North Carolina, increase tax base in rural North Carolina, these same folks come out adamantly opposed to it.”

Democratic lawmakers earlier this week slammed the GOP for trying to link casinos with Medicaid expansion, which will provide health care coverage for hundreds of thousands of low-income residents. The General Assembly passed Medicaid expansion last March, making North Carolina one of the last states to do so. But the measure will not go into effect until a new state budget is passed. 

For the Lumbee, whose 60,000 members make up the largest Native American tribe on the East Coast, Jarrod Lowery said a casino would represent fairness and equality. Congress granted the tribe partial recognition in 1956, denying it the rights of tribes with full federal recognition.

Jarrod Lowery said the tribe has grown accustomed to waiting for full recognition. Now it will wait and see if the General Assembly considers a casino bill moving forward. 

On Monday, as budget negotiations continued, he said the Lumbee were “trying not to count our chickens before they hatch.” 

“We’ve been let down for so many decades,” he said, “that we try not to get our hopes up anymore.” 

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