The dispute between Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt and Native American tribes on the state gaming compact has bled into a legal battle, as the Cherokee, Chickasaw, and Choctaw nations have filed a lawsuit asking a federal court to determine whether the compact automatically renewed at the beginning of the year.
The governor has offered more than 30 tribes an extension so the current agreement could continue until August 2020 without any changes, but Native leaders have rejected that offer because they believe the compact automatically renewed. Stitt has been adamant that it didn't automatically renew and has since hired an out-of-state law firm, Perkins Cole, to defend his position.
"With Perkins Cole, the state of Oklahoma is well-positioned to work toward a compact that protects core public services and advances the future of our great state, it's four million residents, and gaming tribes," Stitt said in a statement. "Perkins Cole will respond to and address the Chickasaw, Cherokee, and Choctaw nations' federal lawsuit filed on New year's Eve. The legal experts at Perkins Cole have successfully represented other states in Indian law controversies."
Over the past 15 years, more than $1.5 billion has been generated for the state by collecting exclusivity fees from tribes ranging from 4 to 10 percent of revenue from Class III gaming. Stitt is reportedly using funds derived from gaming to pay the legal fees, which are not expected to exceed $300,000.
Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. has been steadfast in his view that the compact automatically renewed. He has also said the tribe has been willing to negotiate fee percentages, but has asserted Stitt is attempting to force negotiations by constructing a "phony deadline." He recently criticized Stitt's use of the gaming funds.
"Such spending appears to be outside the bounds of the compact. Irrespective of that very serious issue, resources for the tribes and the state are being used to litigate an issue wholly and baselessly manufactured by Gov. Stitt," Hoskin said.
In December, Stitt warned tribes that gambling would become illegal in the state if a new compact was not agreed to before the new year. Tribal casinos have been business as usual, though, and Hoskin was one of the first to play a slot machine when the clock hit midnight on Jan. 1.
The decision will be left to the court to decide. However, it's left state legislators in a difficult situation, as some have said the money Stitt used could have gone to other programs.
State Sen. Dewayne Pemberton, R-Muskogee, said he hasn't been pleased with the direction the governor has taken and that the money for legal fees could have been spent elsewhere.
"The way I see it, that's dollars that could be used for other things than having to hire lawyers to try to fight against the tribes, but once those dollars are turned over to the state, the state does have the right to use those dollars as it sees fit," he said. "So the governor as a right to do so, but it's hundreds of thousands of dollars that could be used in other programs through other agencies that are basically being wasted."
Pemberton said he would have preferred to see Stitt touch base with different tribal leaders before releasing statements to the media asserting the compact expires.
"I've talked to several legislators - House and Senate members - and I don't think anybody is very happy with the direction things are going," he said. "It kind of disrupts the economics of the state and just makes for bad publicity for everybody all the way around."
The ongoing battle has left Okies wondering which party is in the wrong and whether tribes should have to fork over more money to have exclusivity of gaming facilities. Former State Sen. Cal Hobson, who wrote the bill creating the compact, has stated that specific language within it implies that it does automatically renew if the Oklahoma Horse Racing Commission issues licenses to horse tracks to have electronic gaming, which it did several months ago.
More than 30 tribes agree the compact renewed Jan. 1. Meanwhile, Stitt has argued that Oklahoma tribal entities are not as united as they appear, because he worked out an agreement between the United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians, also based in Tahlequah, and Kialegee Tribal Town, for an eight-month extension of the compact. Neither of the tribes currently operate a gaming facility.
Many Oklahomans would like to see an end to the dispute.
"There should be no increase in tribal compact fees without an increase in the state's consideration and agreement from both parties," said Dell Barnes, Cherokee County Democrats vice chair.
In a Facebook Saturday Forum, the Press asked readers to weigh in on the controversy. While the majority of comments appeared to favor the tribes' position, some believe they should have made a more concerted effort to work with the governor.
"The tribes deliberately broke the compact and acted in bad faith when they refused arbitration, as called for in the compact, and filed a lawsuit that by the terms of the compact is inappropriate at this time," wrote Michael Cummings.
Cummings also pointed out steps he believes both parties are supposed to take in the event of a dispute - including meetings, arbitration, and review of arbitration. His thoughts brought arguments from other readers.
"You defeated your own argument," wrote David Cornsilk. "You noted the compact says: the following procedures MAY be invoked [emphasis added]. If tribes or state were required to go to arbitration the compact would have said SHALL instead of MAY."
Some have argued that tribal governments already contribute enough to the state's economy and that fees should remain where they are.
"I think the tribes should shut the casinos for a month and stop all charitable assistance in the state," wrote Ellen Stanley. "That would certainly open a lot of eyes as the state budget quickly and dramatically tanked."
In a website poll, readers were asked if they think Stitt or the tribes are correct in their interpretation of the compact. Out of 108 respondents, 50 said, "Stitt is not correct, and the tribes should keep operating their casinos, ignoring his demands." Thirty-five readers said, "Stitt is correct, and the tribes should pay more to the state or see their operations closed." Seventeen people said that "Stitt is not correct, and the tribes should punish him for his temerity by paying the state less." One person said, "Stitt may be correct, but he should leave well enough alone." And five readers were undecided.
State Rep. Matt Meredith, D-Tahlequah, and Justin Kennedy, Cherokee County Young Republicans chair, could not be reached by press time.
For more discussion on tribal gaming compacts, go to www.facebook.com/tdpress and scroll down to the Jan. 4 Saturday Forum.