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Wednesday, 07 September 2011 13:07

Extortion or fair share? State wants cut of casino revenue in exchange for live dealers

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To hear many Cherokee leaders on the eve of last week’s tribal elections, the tribe is incredibly close to striking an agreement with Gov. Beverly Perdue that would allow live dealers at the casino, perhaps within weeks.

Two letters from the governor’s office to the tribe in August indicate the truth is murkier than the political message, however.

In return for those live dealers Cherokee maintains would lead to a surge in gaming dollars, North Carolina wants a slice — perhaps more accurately described as a chunk — of the casino-revenue pie.

Exact dollar amounts aren’t detailed. But reading between the lines of a politely worded argument between the tribe’s attorney general and general counsel for the governor, the two parties are clearly at odds over exactly how much the cash-poor state can realistically expect to squeeze out of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians.

“They are not close,” said Perdue’s spokesperson, Chris Mackey, when asked Tuesday how near negotiations are to finalizing between the tribe and Perdue.

The state, under federal law, can’t tax casino profits or sales taxes on casino purchases, because the tribe enjoys sovereignty. The state can, however, demand a percentage of gaming revenue in exchange for giving the tribe gambling privileges.

The state initially wanted the tribe to give up a share of all revenue from the entire resort: the existing gaming machines, the new table games, along with hotel, restaurants, spa, concert revenue, retail shops, you name it.

That tack was sidelined, however, by the Department of Interior, which ultimately has to approve any “revenue sharing” arrangement between the state and the tribe. Oversight by the federal agency attempts limit what states demand of tribes to a reasonable amount.

But there’s the rub: What’s reasonable? While the state was forced to back off demands for a cut of all resort revenue, the sides are still at odds over what’s on the table: all gaming revenue, including existing gaming machines, or only revenue from newly introduced table games with live dealers. Another option being debated is a direct, flat payment to the state each year rather than a percentage based cut.

Negotiations with former Gov. Mike Easley several years ago reached an impasse, but were rekindled with Perdue this year. Easley had demanded too great a share of revenue, and neither side was willing to budge.

The tribe can’t play hardball forever, however. Getting live dealers at the casino is critical to the tribe’s financial wellbeing: The Eastern Band has a $633-million expansion to pay for at a time when the recession has taken a toll on casino business.

“If they don’t get table games it is hard to see any of this succeeding,” said Vin Narayanan, Managing Editor of Casino City Press in Atlantic City and an expert on the industry. “That is the first thing.”

The casino can’t diversify its audience, or attract a younger generation of gamblers, without table games and live dealers, according to Narayanan.

“Young players play table games. Young players don’t play the slots,” Narayanan said. “Casinos know they have an aging demographic that is attracted to the slots. If you have 4,000 seats of all slots your demographic isn’t going to get any younger.”

 

Action in Raleigh next week

If the tribe can reach an agreement with the Democratic governor — which state Sen. Tom Apodaca, R-Henderson County, sympathetically described as akin to hitting a rapidly moving target — the Eastern Band does appear to have the votes necessary for passage in the General Assembly, Apodaca said.

The General Assembly is expected Sept. 12 to signoff on allowing the tribe and Gov. Perdue to renegotiate a gaming compact that would allow live dealers. Perdue noted in the proposed legislation that she “desires to amend the compact,” provided the tribe and state can reach an actual agreement.

Despite the blessings of the General Assembly anticipated next week, the letters from the state reveal the critical agreement with the governor might not be easily won anytime soon, however. Cherokee hasn’t exactly gotten the cart before the horse, but this horse sure is proving difficult to saddle and ride.

While the state clamors for a cut of gaming revenue, the tribe has a wish list of its own that includes more than live dealers. The tribe also wants the state to guarantee its gambling monopoly — a promise not to allow any other casinos anywhere in the state for the 30-year duration of the gaming compact, or until 2041.

The state doesn’t appear willing to go that far.

“We believe the area of exclusivity should be focused on Western North Carolina, recognizing that this protects the tribe from an encroaching competitor while at the same time it avoids binding the hands of future governors and legislatures,” read one of the letters from the governor’s office.

In earlier negotiations that allowed the tribe’s existing casino operation, the tribe was made to give up some of its gaming revenues (at least $5 million a year) for the good of the region. The Cherokee Preservation Foundation was formed to award grants to worthy economic development or cultural initiatives across the mountains, not just on the reservation. The state is willing to reduce the amount the tribe has to funnel to the Cherokee Preservation Foundation if that’s what it takes for the state to get the cut it wants for itself.

Ultimately, the negotiations between the tribe and the state are playing out like the ultimate poker game. A cash-strapped state that’s eager to claim a cut of casino revenue; a debt-burdened tribe that needs live dealers. Only time will tell who has the better hand.

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