Inter-Tribal Council responds to Stitt’s letter on gaming compacts
Matt Morgan, Oklahoma Indian Gaming Association chairman Chickasaw Nation citizen, answers a question on July 10 at the tribe’s Oklahoma City area office. Leaders with Oklahoma-based Native American tribes are voicing frustration with the state’s Republican governor after they say he caught them off guard with plans to force renegotiations for a bigger piece of the billions of dollars tribal casinos generate each year. SUE OGROCKI/ASSOCIATED PRESS
TULSA – With the exclusive Indian gaming compact with the state coming up for renewal in 2020, officials for several Oklahoma-based tribes were dealt a surprise on July 5.
A letter was delivered from Gov. Kevin Stitt – and an editorial by him appeared in the Tulsa World – suggesting that the tribal gaming compact did not renew or roll over at the end of the year, but expired and required renegotiation.
Stitt wrote that “since there has been no governmental action of the State, or court order authorizing electronic gaming in the State, since the effective (2004) date of the Compact, I have been advised that the Compact will not automatically renew. Therefore, I believe it is necessary, prudent, and in the best interests of the State of Oklahoma and (the tribes) to begin negotiating the terms of a new gaming compact as soon as reasonably practicable.”
The letter contends that all terms must be renegotiated, that an agreement should be attained by the end of 2019 and approved by the Department of the Interior, so that tribes “may continue to lawfully conduct certain class III games in Oklahoma after that date.” It also urged tribal representatives to contact Stitt’s general counsel, Mark Burget.
Stitt wrote that other exclusive tribal gaming compacts in states can run as high as 20 percent to 25 percent, and cited Arkansas for charging 13 percent for exclusive gaming rights at four sites to rise to 20 percent. He said Oklahoma-based tribes pay 4 percent to 6 percent for exclusive rights – “the lowest in the nation” – reflecting early efforts to get Indian gaming started that eventually become the state’s eighth-biggest industry.
Speaking to the Tribal Council’s Rules Committee on July 15, Cherokee Nation Gaming Commission Director Jamie Hummingbird said the Nation pays the state a share of its Class III gaming. Class III games account for about 60 percent of the Nation’s machines, and the tribe is charged on a sliding scale between 4 percent and 6 percent on revenue of $20 million or more.
Table and card games are covered under the compact, and the state gets 10 percent of those revenue pools.
Hummingbird said early 2019 figures suggest all Oklahoma-based tribes that game will combine to pay the state $137 million for the year, and that those tribes have given the state $1.6 billion since the compact became effective. He also said figures indicate an economic impact of $2.2 billion per year, and possibly $7.5 billion if “multipliers” are considered.
The Cherokee Nation, along with the Muscogee (Creek), Seminole, Choctaw and Chickasaw nations, released a joint statement on July 12 in response to Stitt’s editorial.
“This compact represents a continuing and mutually beneficial partnership,” the statement read. “The recent action of Governor Stitt puts into question his sincerity to work with us in a cooperative manner moving ahead. We are resolute in our position, and it is our hope Governor Stitt and his advisors will not attempt any bad faith interference on the compact which could set back the progress we have achieved by working together.”
Tribal leaders gathered in Tulsa to decide the statement’s message. The release noted the tribes’ discontent that Stitt, who is a Cherokee Nation citizen, announced his wish to renegotiate the compact through the media rather than contacting the tribes. It was also noticed that Stitt made no mention of terms or a framework for renegotiation and that the tribes would support and observe the current compact.
State Sen. Dewayne Pemberton, R-Muskogee, said there was no indication within the Oklahoma Legislature that reworking the compacts was a priority for the governor or lawmakers.
“This was not something discussed at all during the (legislative) session in any of the caucuses, conferences or meetings I attended,” Pemberton said. “It caught me off guard, and I think it caught everybody off guard. I was always under the impression that there should be some preliminary conversations between the governor and the tribes to ensure that everyone is agreeable to opening the compacts back up.”
Pemberton said the compacts might not be within reach of lawmakers, but between the governor and tribes. “I certainly think it is OK to reach out to the tribes and see about renegotiating the compacts, but I don’t think the governor can strong-arm any of the tribes to come to the table.”
State Rep. Matt Meredith, D-Tahlequah, also thought the compacts would “roll over.”
“The state is charging (the) oil and gas (industry) 5 percent, and if we charged them as much as we charged the tribes, we would be a lot better off,” Meredith said. “The Cherokee Nation’s impact on the state, and especially northeast Oklahoma is awesome.”
Meredith said the Nation is a boon to his district, providing jobs and donating to public services.
“Northeast Oklahoma isn’t feeling the bigger pinch in health care that we see in some parts of Oklahoma – where rural hospitals and clinics are closing – because we have great partners such as the Cherokee Nation,” he said. “I would hate to see what our state would look like without the Cherokee Nation and the other tribes. You look at everything the Nation does, and it’s a good deal for the state.”
Tribal officials have indicated that their July 12 statement is their last until Stitt replies, but Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Bill John Baker told the Tribal Council on July 15 “our sovereignty is at stake.”
“(We provided) a unified, formal and firm response to the governor’s call to reopen the gaming compact talks,” Baker said. “His action calls into question the sincerity of the work with the tribes in a cooperative manner….”