Standing Bear concerned about litigation

Robert Smith

The principal chief of the Osage Nation voiced concern Friday that Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt’s interest in renegotiating tribal gaming compact details could lead to lengthy and expensive litigation that will mean millions of Oklahoma taxpayer and tribal dollars spent on lawyers rather than on citizens who need assistance.

An opinion column that the governor recently submitted to a Tulsa newspaper said that “most state-tribal compacts around the country provide for exclusivity fees to the state of 20% to 25%.”

“In fact, in November 2018, voters in our neighboring state of Arkansas approved four new casinos in the state, two of which will be bid on by tribes from Oklahoma, according to media reports. In Arkansas, the fee will start at 13% and max out at 20%,” Stitt said in his column. He added that “exclusivity fees” in Oklahoma currently range from 4-6%.

“Whoever has been advising him gave him wrong information,” Standing Bear said in an interview Friday. The chief cited a response to Stitt by the Oklahoma Indian Gaming Association and its chairman, Matthew L. Morgan. The OIGA’s response offers what it calls clarifications of statements made by the governor.

“Gov. Stitt wrote that Oklahoma’s tribal gaming industry got its start with the passage of State Question 712 in 2004,” the OIGA said in its clarification. “Indeed, that measure passed by 59 percent, however tribal gaming in Oklahoma as we know it now began some 15 years prior to that, following the federal Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, now 31 years old.

“The compacts to which Gov. Stitt refers do indeed become open for limited negotiation (on both sides) for a period of 180 days before their renewal date, which is January 1, 2020, but, significantly, do not terminate,” the OIGA added. During the 180-day negotiation period, either side can request to renegotiate certain elements, it said.

“If the other side does not agree, the existing compact shall automatically renew for 15 more years,” the OIGA said. “That is to say that should the state suggest a term to which a tribe disagrees, or vice versa, the current compacts remain in place.”

The OIGA specifically took issue with some of Stitt’s arguments.

“His suggestion that Oklahoma’s tribal exclusivity fees, as enumerated within the compacts, are the ‘lowest in the nation’ is untrue: multiple compacts have no revenue sharing at all. His assertion that most compacts require a fee of 20 to 25 percent is also not true,” the OIGA said.

“Gov. Stitt also incorrectly suggests that gaming facilities in Arkansas are a) tribal, operated by Oklahoma tribes, and b) pay compact-based exclusivity fees at a rate of 13 percent. In fact, Oklahoma tribes’ gaming expertise have been hired to manage commercial gaming operations in Arkansas, which are taxed at a rate of 13 percent,” the OIGA said. It said that tribal governments in Oklahoma have paid more than $1.5 billion in exclusivity fees to the state during the past 15 years and have created more than 75,000 jobs.

Chief Standing Bear said he is concerned the kind of increases in tribal payments to the state that Stitt seems to be intent on seeking could amount to “millions, if not tens of millions of dollars” and have a distinct negative influence on the ability of tribal governments to provide medical care for the elderly and college scholarships for the rising generation. Discussions have already begun, behind the scenes, to estimate what the effect of Stitt’s renegotiation proposals could be on tribal programs to benefit children and finance educational programs, Standing Bear said.

Gov. Stitt on Friday issued a statement in response to a joint resolution passed by the Inter-Tribal Council of Five Civilized Tribes. In his statement, Stitt reiterated an intent to try to negotiate new terms with the Indian nations.

The Inter-Tribal Council represents the governments of the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Muscogee (Creek) and Seminole nations. The ITC took issue with both the style and the substance of Stitt’s approach to the gaming compact issue.