OKLAHOMA CITY — The governor said commercial casino operators are very interested in Oklahoma if the state and Native American tribes can’t strike a new deal on gaming compacts.

Gov. Kevin Stitt said he’s personally talked with commercial operators who have told him they’d sign a deal tomorrow to open up a casino, and they’ve offered to pay the state 18% in taxes.

“Let’s open it to everybody, then,” Stitt said. “What is operating a casino worth to have (the) exclusive right to do that?”

Voter-approved compacts have long granted Oklahoma’s tribes the sole right to operate casinos in exchange for paying the state exclusivity fees ranging from 4 to 10%.

But Stitt believes the 15-year compacts expire Jan. 1. During an interview last week, he acknowledged discussions with non-tribal operators interested in doing business in Oklahoma. Previously, Stitt has said tribes won’t be able to offer some casino games legally at the start of the new year.

Tribal leaders disagree with his assessment and believe the compacts automatically renew Jan. 1.

Discussions over compact renewal and rates remain largely at an impasse, since Stitt said Native American leaders booted the state’s negotiators from an October meeting.

Stitt recently said he’s willing to renew what he terms the “contract” for 15 more years, but he wants tribes to pay more for exclusivity rights. He also wants dispute resolution language added to compacts to clearly specify what will happen 15 years from now.

“We want to get a market rate, and then let’s have certainty 15 years from now so Oklahoma doesn’t go through this again,” Stitt said. “Let’s call their bluff. Let’s renew it for 15 years, but let’s change the language so it’s more clear, and we all know what’s going to happen 15 years from now.”

Oklahoma’s 141 casinos have an economic impact of nearly $9.8 billion and support nearly 76,000 jobs, according to an American Gaming Association analysis.

The state’s casinos generated gross gaming revenue of $4.5 billion, according to the national trade group that represents the U.S. casino industry.

Tribal casinos, meanwhile, reported more than $2.2 billion in revenue from Class III games in budget year 2016-17.

“That revenue total alone, were it commercially derived, would make Oklahoma the sixth-largest commercial casino state in the country — and it excludes revenue derived from widely popular, Class II electronic bingo gaming,” the group found.

Oklahoma also has two commercial casinos — Remington Park, owned by a subsidiary of the Chickasaw Nation, and the Cherokee Casino Will Rogers Downs — both of which are operated by tribes but are classified as commercial because they’re not located on tribal land.

Those generated $124.9 million in 2017 — up 10.2% from the year prior, according to the group.

Stitt has every right to speak with businesses about coming to the state, said Matthew Morgan, chairman of the Oklahoma Indian Gaming Association.

But Morgan said it would be an uphill battle for new commercial operators to compete against existing casinos. In all, 35 federally recognized tribes currently have compacts with the state due for renewal. Those sovereign nations operate the gaming locations.

Morgan said opening the market to outside commercial operators could jeopardize hundreds of millions of dollars a year that the state currently receives in exclusivity fees. Those fees have generated more than $1.5 billion over the last 15 years, gaming officials report. Public schools have received about 88% of that.

“Why risk that ($150 million) a year to try to do something like that?” Morgan asked.

In addition, Oklahoma’s tribes live in the state, he said.

“Why he wants to recruit people to try to come in and supplement those makes me scratch my head, and it’s not what a good partner should do,” Morgan said.

Janelle Stecklein covers the Oklahoma Statehouse for CNHI’s newspapers and websites. Reach her at jstecklein@cnhi.com.

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