State Rep. Meredith says tribes have strong case on gaming compact
TAHLEQUAH – Despite both sides hoping for a quick resolution, the skirmish between Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt and the gaming tribes in the state over the state-tribal gaming compact has devolved into a trench battle.
On Jan. 28, the Muscogee (Creek) Nation joined a federal lawsuit filed by the Cherokee, Choctaw and Chickasaw nations on Dec. 31. The Citizen Potawatomi Nation added its name to the suit, along with its own complaint, on Jan. 24.
The five tribes want the court to decide whether the gaming compacts automatically renewed on Dec. 31. The tribes say they did, while Stitt on Jan. 22 filed a federal suit asking the court to shut down tribal Class III gaming.
Meanwhile, there was some head scratching among lawmakers as they prepared to descend on the state capital for the 2020 legislative session on Feb. 3.
State Rep. Matt Meredith, D-Tahlequah, representing much of Cherokee County, is among the legislators wondering why Stitt picked a fight with the tribes – or at least questioning the manner in which the governor chose to fight.
“I have no idea,” Meredith said. “I stand with the tribes, and most of us at 23rd and Lincoln (state Capitol) stand with the tribes. The governor really seems to be out on an island by himself. I can’t understand why the governor of any state would go after any industry or partner that contributes so much to the state.”
Meredith said he was pleased to hear Oklahoma House Speaker Charles McCall, R-Atoka, state a belief that the tribal gaming compact automatically renewed.
Under the compact, the tribes pay the state 4% to 10% of revenue to exclusively offer Class III gaming, which includes slot machines, craps and roulette.
The tribal nations’ lawsuit calls for the court to declare the legal effect of the compact’s Part 15.B., which states: “This Compact shall have a term which will expire on January 1, 2020, and at that time, if organization licensees or others are authorized to conduct electronic gaming in any form other than pari-mutuel wagering on live horse racing pursuant to any governmental action of the state or court order following the effective date of this Compact, the Compact shall automatically renew for successive additional fifteen-year terms.”
In a statement released after Stitt’s office filed to shut down tribal Class III gaming, Stitt said he was “disappointed” the tribes resorted to legal action and refused “the 8-month extension.” The tribes refuse to acknowledge any time limit, and insist either side cannot force the other to renegotiate.
“With respect to the lawsuit, we will defend our interpretation of the compact expiration provision,” Stitt said. “The State has not authorized any electronic gaming since 2004, when Oklahoma voters approved the Tribal-State compacts. I will work to enforce that expiration term because not doing so would allow the administrative acts of unelected officials to dictate state policy and effect significant changes in state governance.”
Meredith said there is talk of the Legislature becoming involved, though he thinks it unlikely and isn’t sure how it would happen. Lawmakers have suggested the gaming compact is an agreement between the tribes and the governor. Nonetheless, Meredith said he has received some House correspondence suggesting representatives be prepared for some sort of gaming bill.
“If it doesn’t get resolved quickly, it might have to come to us at some point,” Meredith said.
Meredith also credited Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. as a firm voice in support of all the gaming tribes in Oklahoma. Should any gaming legislation land before Oklahoma lawmakers, Meredith said the tribes would have a lot of support.
“Everyone at the Capitol understands what the tribes do, and can’t imagine what the state would be like if the tribes weren’t such great partners,” Meredith said, pointing to the Cherokee Nation’s expansion of W.W. Hastings Hospital and the establishment of the Oklahoma State University College of Osteopathic Medicine at Cherokee Nation.
Meredith also said many emergency services in the CN jurisdiction drive trucks purchased with funds provided by the Cherokee Nation or donated vehicles directly.
“There aren’t as many dirt roads because the Cherokee Nation works hand in hand with the county commissioners,” he said. “They helped with the new park and splash pad in Hulbert. They help our schools, with health, roads and bridges, public safety. If the governor would just come look at our little area of the state, he would understand what the Cherokee Nation and all the tribes do for Oklahoma.”
When the impasse passes, Meredith – whose wife and children are Cherokee Nation citizens – said there could be some residual effects. It might take a while to rebuild the level of trust both sides enjoyed.
“But when I look at Chief Hoskin and all the leaders for the other tribes, I don’t see them holding a grudge,” Meredith said. “It can be hard for someone when you’re being a good partner and friend, and then they go and do this. There might be some hurt feelings, but I think the tribes will always be good friends to the state of Oklahoma. I believe that with all my heart.”