OKLAHOMA CITY - Many lawmakers remain largely, and noticeably, silent as tensions over Oklahoma's future gaming compacts rise between Native American tribes and the governor.

Observers say lawmakers - and most elected state leaders, for that matter - have apparently decided to avoid the fray, preferring to wait instead for Republican Gov. Kevin Stitt to and tribal leaders to reach a resolution.

"We notice their (lawmakers') silence too," said Stephen Greetham, senior counsel for the Chickasaw Nation. "We also notice the silence coming out of the Attorney General's Office. He's the chief legal officer for the state of Oklahoma, and I don't see him providing kind of a full-throated endorsement of the analysis Gov. Stitt provides of our renewal clause."

But Hunter, who is serving as the state's lead compact negotiator, hasn't backed the tribe's assessment either, Greetham acknowledged.

"So everyone's kind of quiet on this within state government," Greetham said. "It's almost as if everyone's waiting to see kind of how things shape up before they take a position."

'Dynamic and delicate nature'

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 percent.

But Stitt believes the 15-year compacts expire Jan. 1. Tribal leaders disagree and believe they automatically renew Jan. 1.

Discussions over compact renewal and rates have remained 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 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 will happen 15 years from now.

"As with all negotiations, Attorney General (Mike) Hunter believes they are most successful when we proceed in a manner that respects their dynamic and delicate nature," said Hunter's spokesman Alex Gerszewski. "Therefore, there will be no further comment on the negotiations from the Attorney General's Office or the Governor's Office until further notice."

Still, Stitt said the support from lawmakers has been "pretty good."

"They're privately telling me that they support me," he said. "But you've got to realize that the other thing that's frustrating that Oklahomans need to understand is when certain industries, the casino industry, pours money into campaigns, it complicates it and the lobbying and that's what you're trying to see happen to advocate for their positions.

"Again Oklahomans hate that stuff. They hate the fact that a big industry can control public perceptions. That's what drives them so crazy about me being an independent, outside governor, I come from the private sector, and I'm going to go back to the private sector."

Stitt's office later clarified he was referencing the multimillion-dollar public relations advertising campaign being run by tribes, not political contributions.

Stitt said lawmakers haven't publicly picked sides in the dispute.

"They're pretty much just trying to stay behind the scenes, and that's OK," Stitt said. "They'll jump on the bandwagon when we negotiate a good deal."

'Seems disingenuous'

During the 2017 and 2018 election cycle, tribal governments contributed nearly $766,000 to candidates running for office in Oklahoma, according to an analysis by the nonpartisan National Institute on Money in Politics. The nonprofit compiles campaign donation information on FollowtheMoney.org.

Republican AG Hunter was the top recipient, accepting $54,400 in campaign donations, the analysis found. Democrat Drew Edmondson, who launched a failed bid for governor, received the second most, $38,430.

Labor Commissioner Leslie Osborn, received $21,450; Republican gubernatorial candidate Mick Cornett, $20,000; and House Speaker Charles McCall, R-Atoka, $19,700.

Tribal governments - not the casino industry - have long participated in Oklahoma's political process. A decision to single out the tribal gaming industry is self-serving, Matthew Morgan, chair of the Oklahoma Indian Gaming Association.

"He did not have a problem in the past coming and seeking donations from tribes when he was running for governor," Morgan said. "That, to me, seems disingenuous."

At $17,800, Stitt received the sixth most tribal government donations, according to the nonprofit's analysis.

Dave Bond, vice president for advocacy at the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs, a conservative-leaning think tank, said lawmakers representing districts with heavy tribal influences probably don't have the appetite to deal with it.

"It's not the easiest issue for a legislator to grapple with," Bond said. "On one side, you've got a highly popular new governor, and on the other side you've got some of the largest employers in our state, who under the last 15 years of compacts have built their casinos into one of the largest industries in the state."

Bond said it's not a fun scenario.

Watching it unfold

On Wednesday, Senate Minority Leader Kay Floyd, D-Oklahoma City, was asked about the ideal outcome of tribal compact discussions at the annual State Chamber Public Affairs Forum.

"Pass," she joked, resulting in laughter and applause from hundreds of forum attendees.

Floyd said she is concerned the dispute could end up in the courts. If the issue is resolved through litigation, it's going to make it extremely difficult to work together with the tribes moving forward because Native American partners have an enormous impact, she said.

House Minority Leader Emily Virgin, D-Norman, said she believes Stitt is getting some bad advice on the compacts. In her opinion, the language is clear that they automatically renew.

Virgin said she's also troubled that Stitt's negotiating tone is not respectful of tribal partners.

"I think as legislative leaders we need to be concerned about this because of our state budget," she said.

The state receives about $150 million-plus in exclusivity fees each year from tribes, she said.

However, Senate President Pro Tem Greg Treat, R-Oklahoma City, said the Legislature is not involved in negotiations and he's watching it unfold like everyone else.

He said it's a difficult subject, and he hopes the issue ultimately goes to arbitration.

House Speaker Charles McCall, R-Atoka, said a previous Legislature put the negotiation responsibilities into the hands of the governor. But there needs to be a win for the state of Oklahoma, for people, the governor and the tribes.

"I think there is a win-win opportunity for all parties involved in these compacts," McCall said. "I would encourage and have encouraged the governor to get in there and negotiate with the tribes. Let's get that win-win for the state of Oklahoma. I think there's still time to do that."

Top State candidates who received the most tribal donations in 2017 and 2018, according to Followthemoney.org, are: Michael J. Hunter, attorney general, $54,400; Drew Edmondson, governor, $38,430; Leslie Osborn, labor commissioner, $21,450; Mick Cornett, governor, $20,000; Charles McCall, House, $19,700; Kevin Stitt, governor, $17,800; Avery Frix, House, $17,750; Stephanie Bice, Senate, $17,000; Joy Hofmeister, superintendent, $15,000; and Todd Lamb, governor, $14,825.

Janelle Stecklein covers the Oklahoma Statehouse for CNHI's newspapers and websites.

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