Gaming fight headed for showdown

Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt talks to the Norman Rotary Club during a meeting at First Christian Church in Norman.

A battle between state officials and Native American tribes over a hotly debated gaming compact could spill into federal court if the two sides can’t reach an agreement by Jan. 1, Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt said Thursday.

Stitt made his comments after speaking to the Norman Rotary Club.

Stitt and other state officials argue the gaming compact ends Jan. 1 while tribal leaders contend the agreement automatically renews for another 15 years. Oklahoma receives about $140 million a year from the gaming industry in exchange for exclusive gambling rights. During the last 15 years, Oklahoma has received more than $1 billion in revenue sharing from the casino operations.

The tribes pay anywhere from 4 to 10% of their revenue to the state on Class III games. Now, Stitt wants 15 to 20%.

Stitt said after his Rotary Club speech that the tribes would be operating illegally if the casinos remain open after Jan. 1.

“That’s the complicated part,” he said. “It could wind up in the U.S. Attorney’s office.”

Scott E. Williams, spokesman for the U.S Attorney’s Office in Oklahoma City, had no comment on the gaming compact issue or Stitt’s remark.

“We continue to regard our friends in both state and tribal governments as valued partners in law enforcement and public safety,” he wrote in an email response.

However, Stitt admitted he would favor an extension to the gaming compact if the tribes were negotiating in “good faith.” So far, the governor said, the tribes won’t talk to him or his representatives. Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter hired a Michigan-based law firm to represent the state in the negotiations with Oklahoma tribes. The firm is charging Oklahoma up to $250,000 for its services.

Stephen Greetham, senior attorney for the Chickasaw Nation, said tribal casino operations in Oklahoma “will be as lawful in January 2020 as they are now. It’s unfortunate Governor Stitt is taking such a combative approach with the tribes.”

The Chickasaw Nation owns several gambling operations including WinStar World Casino & Resort in Thackerville and Riverwind Casino in Norman.

Greetham countered that the tribes have been communicating with Stitt’s office, but administration officials have not tendered any proposal about specific plans for renegotiating the compact.

A Dec. 3, 2019, letter from Chickasaw Nation Gov. Bill Anoatubby to U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs Assistant Secretary Tara Sweeney informed the federal official of the battle brewing in Oklahoma. Anoatubby also wrote that a “formal dispute may be imminent.” Anoatubby informed Sweeney that the Chickasaw tribe had received an independent legal opinion from former U.S. Solicitor General Seth Waxman about the Class III gaming operations and the compact. Waxman’s 13-page legal opinion supported the tribe’s position.

In his letter to Sweeney, Anoatubby wrote, “Any attempt to disrupt our Tribal government gaming operations would present an intolerable risk of injury to the Chickasaw Nation and its citizens. Accordingly, we reserve the right to take legal action, if necessary, to protect the Chickasaw Nation’s legal and sovereign rights as well as the material interests of our citizens who rely on government programs and services supported by our gaming operation revenues.”

Greetham said Thursday that Oklahoma continues to receive among the highest returns of any state under tribal-state gaming compacts.

In a July 19, 2019, letter to the governor’s general counsel Mark Burget, Greetham wrote that Stitt is wrong when he publicly states “most state-tribal compacts around the country provide for exclusivity fees to the state of 20% to 25%.”

As of June 2015, only 14 of the 276 tribal-state gaming compacts provided a rate that high, Greetham wrote. The most common tribal-state gaming compact rate is zero percent, he wrote in the letter to Burget. Greetham also wrote that most tribal-state compacts include a rate of less than 10%.

The Indian gaming figures quoted in Greetham’s letter were from the U.S. Government Accountability Office.

2018 was a record year as the tribes shared $139 million with the state on roughly $2.3 billion in revenue from games covered under the compact, according to information from Oklahoma’s gaming industry provides 96,177 jobs that generate $4.6 billion in wages and benefits, Greetham said.

Greetham doesn’t anticipate state lawmen will raid tribal gaming operations on Jan. 1 while physically restricting people from entering the facilities.

“They could harass and interfere, but Governor Stitt is no “Alfalfa Bill” Murray,” he said.

William “Alfalfa Bill” Murray was elected as Oklahoma’s governor in 1930 and was known to enforce the state’s laws with the use of martial law.

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