Democrats ready to take gamble to fix state’s roads

Harrah’s Cherokee Casino in Cherokee, N.C., has a monopoly on casino gambling in the Carolinas, something Democrats in the South Carolina House want to change. The minority party is proposing legalizing gambling to raise tax revenues for repairing roads and other needs.

State Sen. Gerald Malloy recently suggested it’s time for voters to decide whether South Carolina is finally game for casinos.

He’s right, but his proposed constitutional amendment was — in parlance — the very definition of a long shot.

It went nowhere fast at the Statehouse, even though polls show more than half the state’s residents would be OK with casinos. And more than two-thirds would support legalized gambling if the tax revenue is used to improve infrastructure.

And the state has a few infrastructure needs.

But this is South Carolina, which has a long history of intolerance for anything related to gambling — except lottery-funded college scholarships and failed casino moguls.

Perhaps coincidentally, the state also has a long history of jerking around the Catawba Indian Nation. And South Carolina is now doing both at once.

The federal government has declared the Catawbas a recognized tribe with the right to operate a casino. Which is long overdue, and would help many Catawbas break the cycle of poverty they’ve endured for generations.

You know, since settlers took their land, the feds ignored their treaties and the state reneged on a couple of deals to pay off the tribe for said stolen land.

South Carolina could set things right by allowing the Catawbas a single casino, but they have fought this for years. Because, you know, gambling is a sin ... according to the people who set up the South Carolina Education Lottery.

Instead, North Carolina officials and South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham are promoting a plan to allow the Catawbas to build a casino outside of Charlotte. And that puts the tribe in direct conflict with the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Nation, which worries about a new casino cutting into their business.

First off, these politicians are putting both tribes in an unnecessarily difficult position. And secondly, South Carolina is hurting its own folks.

People in North Carolina want the casino and the business it brings, and they’re not all that different from us. There are dying towns in South Carolina that could no doubt benefit from similar opportunities ... but that choice is apparently off the table.

This is one of a handful of states that does not allow any gambling beyond its own. Our constitution even says a person can’t hold an elected office if they profit off gambling.

Of course, that’s hypocrisy at its best. Two decades ago, South Carolina shut down a lucrative — and, yes, somewhat predatory — video poker industry, only to open the door to a state-sponsored lottery.

In the years since, most states have relaxed about gaming. South Carolina spent its time arguing whether churches and charities could host raffles, bingo and casino nights.

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South Carolina is missing out on a piece of the $9.2 billion in taxes casinos paid in 2017. That’s direct taxes, not the larger, more ambiguous measure of “economic benefit.”

When Malloy proposed his constitutional amendment, he also introduced legislation to set up a gambling study committee to determine what the state’s rake would be if it opened its doors to casinos.

Let’s save the nonexistent study committee some time. According to the American Gaming Association, Delaware — which has three casinos in its confined space — makes about $164 million a year in tax revenue from them. Massachusetts’ sole casino generates about $80 million annually for taxpayers.

That’s a lot of roads and bridges.

Make no mistake, casinos are no cure-all and not all positive. But they provide jobs and generally spur economic development in places where the Boeings, Volvos and BMWs aren’t moving in. The Cherokees have proven this in western North Carolina.

The Eastern Band of the Cherokee Nation makes enough off casinos to supplement members of the tribe’s income by as much as $12,000 a year. The Catawbas deserve no less after years of mistreatment dating back to before the Revolution.

And frankly, this state — which usually is happy to let visitors subsidize its bills — should take advantage as well.

Instead, South Carolina is leaving money on the table, and finding new and creative ways to once again jerk around the Catawbas.

Reach Brian Hicks at bhicks@postandcourier.com.

Reach Brian Hicks at bhicks@postandcourier.com.

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