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As lawmakers tie casinos to Medicaid, questions remain for Lumbee and southeastern NC

By Sarah Nagem

Newly proposed legislation ties four casinos, including one that would be operated by the Lumbee tribe, to Medicaid expansion as North Carolina lawmakers try to reach a budget deal. 

The state House plans to vote Wednesday or Thursday on the budget and a separate “Gaming and Medicaid Modifications bill,” The News & Observer reported. Both measures are being closely watched in southeastern North Carolina, where thousands of people lack health insurance and a casino would provide a much-needed economic boost. 

In a letter Monday, Democrats in the General Assembly slammed the GOP for linking casinos and Medicaid expansion, saying “Republican leaders are gambling with our healthcare and our future.” 

Rep. Jarrod Lowery, a Robeson County Republican, told the Border Belt Independent on Tuesday the separate legislation could provide an easier path for a state budget, which is nearly three months late. The latest draft budget by the House reportedly includes 7% raises for state employees over the next two years. 

“We need a budget,” Lowery said. “If there is a way we get a budget, it’s just one extra vote.” 

While political wrangling continues in Raleigh, a pressing question remains in southeastern North Carolina: Where would a Lumbee-run casino 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. 

Lumbee officials have not said if they have a specific location in mind. Any location would likely have to win approval of county commissioners. 

Under the draft legislation, three other casinos would be near the Virginia border in counties designated by the state as tier one, or economically distressed. House Speaker Tim Moore previously said they would be in Anson, Nash and Rockingham counties. 

In southeastern North Carolina, Brunswick and New Hanover are tier three counties, meaning they are among the least economically distressed in the state. (The other counties listed in the proposed bill are tier one.)

Lowery, a Lumbee whose brother, John Lowery, serves as tribal chairman, said he would be disappointed if a casino goes to a wealthier county. Robeson had a 5.5% jobless rate in July, compared to 3.3% statewide. Neighboring Scotland County’s jobless rate was 6.7%, the highest in the state, according to the N.C. Department of Commerce.  

Jarrod Lowery said Robeson County’s annual revenue would likely increase by $13 million to $17 million within five years of a casino opening. The money would come from sales and property taxes and 5% of gaming revenue, he said.

“That’s an enormous amount of schools we can build,” he said. “We can hire more sheriff’s deputies.” 

But a casino might not be welcomed with open arms in Robeson County, a deeply religious community. John Cummings, vice chairman of the county Board of Commissioners, said he had mixed feelings. 

“As a Christian, no,” Cummings said when asked if he would like to see a casino in Robeson. “But what it would do for the community, yes.” 

Cummings said commissioners have not been contacted by state leaders about a potential casino. He sees that as a sign Robeson County might not be the target. 

The proposed casinos are dubbed “rural entertainment districts” that would also feature restaurants, shopping and other amenities. But Cummings said Robeson County lacks other attractions that would make a casino successful. Popular vacation spots closer to the beach would likely draw a bigger crowd, he said. 

Bill Rivenbark, chairman of the New Hanover County Board of Commissioners, did not respond to an email sent Monday by the BBI. Ricky Bullard, chairman of the Columbus County board, did not immediately return a phone call Tuesday morning. 

No matter the location, Jarrod Lowery said a casino would be a boon to the Lumbee tribe, which is recognized by the state and has partial federal recognition. The tribe has been fighting for more than a century for full federal recognition, which would bring millions of dollars for health care, education and other services, and allow casino operations. 

Other Native American tribes, including the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians – the only North Carolina tribe with full federal recognition – have long been opposed to the designation for the Lumbee. Jarrod Lowery said the EBCI, which operates casinos in western North Carolina, is also opposed to gambling expansions in the state. So is the Catawba Nation, a South Carolina-based tribe that operates a casino near Charlotte, he said. 

The BBI emailed both tribes’ public affairs offices on Monday but did not get responses. 

Tom Taylor, chairman of the Robeson Board of Commissioners, said he worried about what might happen if a casino opens in his county. He said he’d hate to see people gamble away their money while their children go hungry. 

But, Taylor said, “I want what the people in this county want.” 

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