ARDMORE — The ongoing dispute between Gov. Kevin Stitt and the Oklahoma’s Native American tribes regarding the state’s gaming compact continued to rapidly evolve last week.
While across the state, Stitt offered a conditional extension, days after Attorney General Mike Hunter withdrew from negations, the Choctaw Nation’s executive officer of Gaming and Hospitality at Choctaw Casinos & Resorts, Heidi Grant, met with Rotary members at Dornick Hills Country Club to reinforce the collective value tribes bring to the communities they belong to.
A sticking point in the ongoing dispute has been Stitt’s insistence that the compact, first established in 2004, has a sunset date of Jan.1, 2020, a position the tribes have collectively opposed throughout negotiations claiming that the compact automatically renews every 15 years.
During the process, the tribes have expressed a willingness to renegotiate the terms of the agreement, while viewing Stitt’s claim of an expiration date as a nonstarter, along with his claim that without a new or renewed compact, casinos would be operating illegally after Jan. 1.
Under the current terms of the compact, tribes agree to pay 4 to 6% of revenues derived from gaming to the state in return for exclusivity rights, though Grant called the tribes’ collective contributions to all facets of Oklahoma’s socioeconomic landscape far greater, citing a study conducted by the tribes claiming nearly $13 billion worth of investments, impacts spending within the state through infrastructure, education and community expenditures.
“We pay a pretty good chunk to our state compared to some of the other states in the country,” Grant said. “All the money we pay the state and everything from an economic perspective goes back into infrastructure, it goes back into education, it goes back into healthcare. All those monies would normally come from taxpayer dollars, but we are giving the state those dollars.”
Some of those investments include Oklahoma Native Impact’s claim of $198 million paid in exclusivity fees and additional support specifically earmarked for education in 2017, to which Grant rhetorically asked “where has that money gone?,” alluding to the state Legislature’s use of exclusivity fees to replace diverted funds previously allocated for education to other areas, including tax cuts.
Stitt has yet to make public his demands for any changes to the compact with the tribes, but has stated that commercial operators have shown interest in the state with rates as high as 18%, signaling a willingness to open Oklahoma’s gaming interest to outside, or non-tribal competitors.
Throughout the process, tribal leaders have expressed a willingness to renegotiate the terms of the compact, which were not altered in the most recent budget negotiations that included House Bill 3375, which allowed ball and dice gaming within the state.
Chickasaw Gov. Bill Anoatubby indicated, in a press release sent to The Ardmoreite, the tribes’ willingness to take the dispute to the courts by saying “Unlike contracts, compacts are solemn agreements between two sovereigns that remain in force until both parties agree otherwise. Former Solicitor General Seth Waxman issued a powerful legal opinion that reinforces our confidence that the compacts automatically renew on January 1. The State of Oklahoma listed certain conditions for automatic renewal in the compact they offered to the Tribes. That compact was accepted by the Tribes and approved by the federal government. We have honored the terms of the compact and intend to continue operating under that renewing agreement, and we expect the State to do the same.”
Hunter announced his decision to withdraw from the negotiations via press release and declined to comment further on the decision.
Without a compact in place, Stitt’s claim that the casinos would be operating illegally casts doubt on the state’s ability to enforce any edicts he imposes.
On Wednesday of last week, Stitt renewed his offer to extend the negotiations through August 2020, but would require the tribes to agree that the compact expires, which directly contradicts the tribes’ position of automatic renewal.
The tribes refused Stitt’s offer, and the governor subsequently announced that the state will resume auditing gaming operations in Oklahoma.