State budget proviso would help pay Catawba Indian Nation bill for schools

When state legislators return to Columbia on Tuesday, their overriding goal will be to hammer out a compromise budget that will keep South Carolina operating after July 1.

But within that mission, a smaller item in the state Senate’s version of the budget has the potential to become a sticking point between the two chambers, and the finances of the Rock Hill school district and the Catawba Indian Nation may hang in the balance.

The Senate version of the state budget includes a $500,000 proviso to pay the Rock Hill school district, covering a portion of the outstanding school tuition bill owed by the Catawba tribe.

State Sen. Wes Hayes, R-Rock Hill, who supports the measure, says state intervention may be the only way Rock Hill schools see any money from the long-running dispute.

“In theory, the Catawba owe the money,” Hayes said. “But practically speaking, they don’t have the means to pay it besides the (tribe’s) bingo hall, and that’s already taxed by the state. This may be the best chance the school district has of getting paid back.”

But whether the money survives the next few days of floor votes in Columbia is an open question. The area’s House representative, state Rep. Gary Simrill, R-Rock Hill, already has motioned to have the proviso removed from the budget in the House of Representatives and has asked his colleagues to oppose any money for the Catawbas’ tuition bill when they conference on the budget with their Senate counterparts.

“The state doesn’t need to pay $500,000 to the Rock Hill school district for what the Catawba owe,” Simrill said.

In 1993, the tribe agreed to pay out-of-district tuition fees for Catawba Indian schoolchildren when tribal property was taken off the school tax rolls. That deal was part of a settlement that allowed the Catawba to regain federal recognition as a Native American tribe and the sovereign rights that go along with it.

At the time, the Catawba nation also received a $50 million settlement for the tribe’s historic land claims, of which $12 million came from the state, $34 million from the federal government and the remainder from local and private sources, Hayes said.

But the tribe has been unable to secure federal funds to support the tuition bill. Since Act 388 removed residential property from school tax rolls in 2006 in South Carolina, the Catawba nation no longer owes the school district tuition, but unpaid tuition for the 12 years prior means the nation still owes the district an estimated $2.7 million to $4 million.

Chief Bill Harris, who was not involved in the 22-year-old settlement, said the tribe made the 1993 agreement with the understanding that federal Indian funds would cover the costs of the tuition bill, but only later learned the Catawba nation wouldn’t qualify. The 280 schoolchildren living on the Catawba Indian Reservation east of Rock Hill were too few to meet the federal threshold, and the tribe’s students attend schools throughout the district rather than at a single site as envisioned by the federal program.

Harris says the agreement is unequal and the dispute singles out Catawba nation students from their non-Indian classmates.

“We really have to pay for this as citizens of the state, but then our native sons and daughters have to pay an out-of-county rate,” he said.

Last week, the Rock Hill City Council voted to reject a $1,500 request from the tribe for accommodations tax funding, citing the outstanding tuition bill as an impediment to giving the tribe any other public funds. The money would have been spent promoting the Catawba bingo hall on Cherry Road.

None of the other 17 requests for accommodations funding presented to council were rejected. The money that would have gone to the Catawba nation was instead redirected to the city’s downtown holiday ice rink.

Funding for the Senate proviso would come out of a 10 percent tax on gross proceeds from the Catawbas’ bingo hall. That money would otherwise go to the state’s general operating fund.

“As long as (the bingo hall’s) up and running, the state will get a payment straight off the top,” Harris said. “It’s a win-win for everybody.”

Although the school district and the Catawba nation are still in negotiations over the final settlement of the tuition bill, Hayes says both sides requested him to add the proviso to the Senate budget.

School board chairman Jim Vining said he and other board members as well as Superintendent Kelly Pew have contacted local legislators to support the initiative, but Vining isn’t optimistic the proviso will survive if the local delegation doesn’t support it.

“This would help the money stay in the district,” Vining said, “but the state’s not going to pass it if the local legislators don’t support it.”

Simrill said he was contacted by Pew and Vining asking him to back the measure, but said he wouldn’t support the measure if it’s still in the budget when it reaches the floor of the House.

“When they settled that lawsuit, all sides, state, federal, all settled their claims with the Catawba,” Simrill said. “This is a debt the Catawba owe.”

Bristow Marchant •  803-329-4062