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House bill could make Cherokee a little less dry

fr casinoBreweries could be built and alcohol served at special events in Cherokee, if a House bill currently awaiting hearing in a Senate committee becomes state law. 

Tribal Alcohol Beverage Control, also known as House Bill 95, is “sort of a technical correction” to the bill he sponsored in 2011, said Sen. Jim Davis, R- Franklin. The newly introduced bill would clarify some points that the act creating the Tribal Alcoholic Beverage Control Commission four years ago left a bit uncertain. 

That law had created a tribal ABC board, but it hadn’t spelled out that Cherokee’s board would have the same permitting authority as the state’s, Davis said.

“They’ll be granted the same authority that the state has because on the Qualla Boundary, that’s a sovereign nation,” Davis explained. 

Under H95, the Tribal ABC Commission would be allowed to issue all the same kinds of alcohol permits that the N.C. ABC Commission does, but the tribal commission would also have to adhere to state standards regarding alcohol and adopt any future changes to state ABC law. 

However, some aspects of the bill could come as a surprise to the 60 percent of tribal members who voted to strike down a referendum question asking whether to lift the historical ban on alcohol sales on the Qualla Boundary. The 2012 referendum vote failed decisively, with opponents citing alcohol’s link to issues such as violence and broken families, averring that it would cost far more to treat the problems resulting from increased alcohol abuse than the potential revenue could justify. 

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Currently, the only place on the reservation where alcohol is available is Harrah’s Cherokee Casino Resort, which obtained an exemption after a referendum vote in 2009, when about 70 percent of voters expressed their support for allowing alcohol sales on the premises.

Collette Coggins, chairman of the Tribal ABC Commission, said the new legislation is not at attempt to make an end-run around voters’ clear-cut wishes. 

“It’s not going to be a free-for-all, issuing licenses all over the reservation,” she said. “We still have to have a referendum.” 

In Cherokee, a referendum vote is required for any change to the list of places where alcohol sales are allowed — currently, just the casino. 

But there are some exceptions to that requirement. In 2011, the Cherokee Tribal Council voted to adopt as tribal law a piece of North Carolina legislation known as 18B-603. That law, among other things, includes a list of alcohol permits that are not dependent on elections. In other words, the ABC Commission could grant these permits without requiring a referendum vote. 

That law has been on the books in Cherokee’s code of ordinances for the past four years, but due to the construction of the state law, Cherokee could not issue the types of permits listed. 

The list of alcohol permits exempt from referendum include permits for special occasions such as festivals, brown bagging permits for clubs and veterans organizations and permits for tourism resorts and ABC establishments — as specified in the bill, this last one refers to restaurants and hotels on Cherokee land within 1.5 miles of the Blue Ridge Parkway between mileposts 460 and 469. It also includes permits for breweries, wineries and distilleries, though such establishments would not be allowed to serve, on the reservation, any of the alcohol they produced without a permit granted through a referendum vote. 

“For example, if someone was having the Harley rally, then on the grounds where the Harley rally was, we would be able to issue them a one-time permit for that facility,” Coggins explained. “If somebody comes along and they want to build a brewery on the boundary, it gives them [the ABC board] the ability to issue a permit.” 

If passed, the bill would certainly alter the landscape of alcohol availability on the reservation. But according to Coggins, it’s mostly just a way to clarify whose job is whose and to ensure that the tribe is granted the rights due it as a sovereign nation.

“We’re just asking to be able to be treated equal as the state is treated, because those items were left out of our original bill,” she said. 

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