State Judiciary report favors Catawbas
COLUMBIA, S.C. - The South Carolina state legislature likely will consider a bill that would trade off Catawba Indian Nation's (CIN) right to have video poker on its reservation for a Class II bingo hall near the town of Santee, a state senator explained.
If passed, the tribe may abandon its attempt to put the bingo operation under the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act.
The Senate's attention was in response to the Senate Judiciary Committee report which confirmed that the Catawbas have the right to put video poker machines on their reservation although video poker was banned in the state in 1999.
The committee found that the state is constitutionally bound by the 1993 agreement between them and the Catawbas and subject to the laws at the time, and therefore the state cannot change the conditions of the agreement currently.
Catawba Chief Gilbert Blue explained that the committee opinion just affirmed the opinion by South Carolina Policy Council which was made public its report last summer.
However, Chief Blue, who was pleased with both reports, said the nation wants to go with high stakes electronic bingo in Santee along Interstate 95 about 150 miles south of Rock Hill, S.C., where the Catawbas already have a bingo hall. In the 1993 agreement with the state, the Catawbas settled for two bingo halls in the state.
The nation will not set up video poker machines on the reservation, Blue explained, if the state will agree to allow the tribe to have the Santee bingo go under Class II conditions.
The Senate Judiciary Committee report was done at the request of Sen. C. Bradley Hutto, D-Orangeburg.
Sen. Hutto, an attorney himself, said, "It basically says, under the 1993 agreement between the state and the Indian tribe, video poker would be allowed on the reservation in Rock Hill. They don't have video poker there now, and in fact if they can get the bingo facility in Santee, they don't intend to put video poker machines in Rock Hill."
He continued, "So basically what the legislation that we are considering is going to entail is revoking their right to have the video poker on the tribal reservation in exchange for a Class II bingo facility in Santee."
Hutto said the legislation probably will not be considered for a couple of weeks. "We have an amendment prepared that would allow them to open a Class II facility in Santee. Hopefully, we will take that up and vote on it in the near future."
The South Carolina State legislature continues to meet until the first of June.
Lawyer for the Catawbas, Jerry Jay Bender, said the exchange bill, if passed, would allow the Catawbas to continue their economic development as planned.
"I think that it would be a fair trade-off," he said. "I think that the potential to have an effective economic development program would be improved by having the project at Santee rather that having the constant litigation the tribe would face if it attempted to open video poker on the reservation."
South Carolina Attorney General Henry McMasters explained that if the Catawbas were forced into court over video poker and win, the entire state could see the return of video poker in the land. "If the Catawbas were to prevail in court, it could be very dangerous to South Carolina," he said.
Bender also mentioned that some of the tribal members do not want gambling on the reservation. Denise Nichols, a Catawba, wrote to the local newspaper early in January, and said she and others were opposed to having video poker on the Catawba reservation.
Bender said, "Certainly there are several reasons the tribe has not previously opened video poker on the reservation. Among those reasons, resistance by tribal members to having video poker just like it has been resistance to video poker in the non-Native population."
Recently Catawba leaders met with leaders from Orangeburg County where the second bingo would be located. The tribe was allowed to extend its expiration date for purchasing property in the county from January to September. The tribe is interested in purchasing a closed down shopping center next to Interstate 95 in Santee for a bingo hall.
Chief Blue first announced the tribe's intentions to establish the bingo hall in Santee during the summer of 2003. The town of Santee and Orangeburg County were all in favor, but some state leaders and church members from outside the communities offered resistance to Catawba plans.
U.S. Rep. James E. Clyburn, D-S.C., whose representation includes the communities, developed legislation for Catawba bingo to be under Indian Gaming Regulatory Act instead of it remaining under the 1993 South Carolina land settlement act with the Catawbas.
Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, R-Colo., introduced the bill to Congress, but Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., got together with Sen. Joe Ensign, R-Nev., and placed the bill on hold.
Bender has asked why Ensign and Nevada governor, Kenny C. Guinn, opposed the Catawba plans since they come from a gambling state. The Nevada governor has been reported to be against American Indian gambling coming into Nevada from California.
As of late, South Carolina governor, Mark Sanford, and Sen. Robert W. Hayes Jr., R-Rock Hill, who had led the opposition to Catawba plans, were agreeing that keeping the Santee Catawba bingo on the state level is better.
At the federal level, Rep. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., and Rep. Gresham Barrett, R-S.C. have requested House Speaker Dennis Haster, R-Ill., not to allow the Catawba bingo bill onto the House floor.