The recent emergence of gambling issues on several fronts says it's time again for a full-throated debate on this subject, especially given South Carolina's history on gambling and its statutory ban against most forms of it, including friendly poker games and church raffles.
The last real debate came in 2000, the year a ban on video poker went into effect and voters said "yes" to a state-run lottery to help pay for education.
This state's ability to get out ahead of gambling issues was tested in the 1990s with video poker and found to be sorely lacking. We fumbled and bumbled our way through that, with video poker casinos popping up on every corner and law enforcement working overtime to enforce what seemed to be ever-changing rules.
Leading the list today is the proposal to open an off-reservation Cherokee gaming casino in Hardeeville. The casino would be built on 50 acres in Hilton Head Lakes, with the imprimatur of the United Keetoowa Band of the Cherokee of Tallequah, Okla. The project holds the promise of thousands of jobs and hundreds of million of dollars in economic impact for Jasper County and the state.
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It would come under federal law controlling off-reservation gambling, which includes getting approval from South Carolina's governor and the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs.
The casino could prove to be an economic boon to Jasper County, but it should be looked at in the context of gambling as a whole in South Carolina and not as one isolated event. If a deal were struck with the governor on this casino, it's very likely casino gambling wouldn't stop there. Are we ready for what might come next?
Other gambling issues that have come to the fore in recent months include:
The tribe is up against a settlement it agreed to in 1993, which states that the tribe is allowed to offer gambling to the extent it is authorized by state law. A 2007 state Supreme Court decision reinforced that.
The Catawbas are pushing economic impacts similar to those touted by supporters of the proposed casino in Hilton Head Lakes.
A vote on gambling proposals, including the Cherokee casino in Hardeeville, strikes us as an appropriate approach. Let individual communities decide whether they want gambling. Hilton Head Lakes developers point to votes of support for the casino by the Jasper County Council and Hardeeville City Council as proof of community support. But a ballot question is a better way to gauge that support, even if it's not necessary under federal law.
We suspect that the Hardeeville casino would get a favorable vote in Jasper County, as would proposals to allow gambling in other areas of the state. County-by-county referendums in 1994 on whether to continue to allow cash payouts for video poker resulted in only 12 of 46 counties saying "no." The S.C. Education Lottery got the nod from 54 percent of the voters statewide in 2000.
And we say put it to a vote even though the state Supreme Court in 1999 blocked a referendum on the video poker ban. The decision stated that the legislature could not delegate the authority of lawmaking to a popular vote.
Gov. Nikki Haley put the Hardeeville casino proposal in appropriate perspective at a Jan. 18 news conference: "What I know is right now we don't allow gambling in the state, so I'm not going to say let's go out and do this. I understand locally they're talking about this, and they're getting some things done, but that's a big deal to ask for an exception to state law. That's not something I'm going to take lightly or answer quickly."
We have time to sort this out. The developers hope to bring an agreement to Haley by the end of the year. If she were to endorse it, it would be considered by the federal Department of the Interior's Bureau of Indian Affairs, a process the developers said might take between six and 18 months.
Opportunity might be knocking, but let's be sure we know what's on the other side of the door.