Tahlequah Daily Press

April 2, 2014

Maybe it’s not $3.2B, but state should still account for tribal cash


TAHLEQUAH — In an editorial published last week, the Daily Press said that through tribal compacts, the state of Oklahoma received about $3.2 billion in annual revenue, partly attributable to the 117 casinos (or 118, in some reports) run by 33 tribes in the state. The information we accessed for that piece was confusing, and had a typo or two, which may have led us to overstate – to a considerable degree – how much money the tribes actually give the state.

The $3.2 billion figure is, in fact, about what Oklahoma tribes have recently earned per year in casino revenues alone – not what they’ve remitted to the state through all their compacts.

In 2012, according to state figures, the Oklahoma tribes reported more than $3.7 billion in gambling revenue. The amount remitted to the state for “exclusivity fees” attached to the tribal compacts was nearly $124 million in 2012 – a 770 percent increase from the $14 million and change paid in 2006. The Cherokee Nation alone paid $13.1 million to the state in 2012 just as a result of its gambling compact, while the Muscogee (Creek) Nation paid $10 million to the state in 2012.

It should be noted this does not include the money tribes allocate for “local government” – such as to schools and for maintenance of roads. It also does not factor in money paid to the state as part of compacts involving tobacco sales. For example, in 2010, the Cherokee Nation paid $12 million of a total $45 million price tag to help overhaul the I-44 interchange in front of the Hard Rock Casino, and it regularly gives hundreds of thousands of dollars to schools in the 14-county jurisdiction.

Some of this information is readily available online, through the state’s website, the Cherokee Phoenix and mainstream newspapers like the Tulsa World. Other information – specifically about other money tribes give to the state and other local governments – is more obscure.

We have an alert reader to thank for noticing the numbers discrepancy in our editorial. And to our readers, we offer our humble apologies.

But although we may say the $3.2 billion kicked to the state from all tribal sources was an overstatement, the original point still remains: What’s happening to all this tribal money? And why does the state continue to cut funding, if it has access to sums that, to the eyes of the average Okie, seem astronomical?

Some tribal citizens – not just Cherokees, but others as well – wonder whether the compacts, which come around for renegotiation in 2020, are worth it. Others say they are, because the restrictions that would be placed on tribes without them would bring down the profit margins considerably. Either way, the state of Oklahoma needs more transparency in its arrangements with the tribes.

When it comes to anything over six figures, the less mathematically-inclined among us are all guilty of “zero creep.” After a certain point, the numbers are meaningless; the actual amount is incomprehensible. But whether it’s tens of millions of dollars, or a couple of billion the state of Oklahoma is raking in, one thing is clear: Oklahoma is scoring big bucks from Native Americans – and because of that, it ought to be doing a better job providing vital services not only to tribal  members, but to the rest of us as well.