OKLAHOMA CITY — Gaming compact talks appear stalled after tribal leaders booted the state’s negotiators out of a meeting last month.
Republican Gov. Kevin Stitt said state leaders were invited to meet with tribes to discuss arbitration and unveil the state’s plan ahead of the expiration of the gaming agreements.
“The state was kicked out of that meeting before we could present our plan,” Stitt said during a press conference Thursday at the Capitol. “They would not listen to our plan.”
Then two or three days later, Stitt said he received a letter saying arbitration was off the table. No other resolution was offered to bridge the impasse, he said.
“The fact of the matter is they have refused to communicate with me,” he said. “That’s why I’m going directly to the Oklahoma people to let them know what’s happening.”
Stitt, meanwhile, would not detail the state’s proposed compact plan Thursday. The governor said he’s considering boosting the amount tribes pay for gaming exclusivity rights to as high as 25 percent.
He also said he hadn’t ruled out calling lawmakers back into special session to resolve the issue before the Jan. 1 deadline.
The voter-approved compacts allow tribes to offer gaming in exchange for paying the state exclusivity fees ranging from 4 to 10 percent. Those fees have generated more than $1.5 billion over the last 15 years, gaming officials report.
In all, 35 federally recognized tribes currently have compacts with the state up for renewal. Those sovereign nations operate more than 130 facilities and casinos, tribal leaders said.
At the heart of the dispute is whether the compacts expire Jan. 1. Stitt contends they do. Tribal leaders contend they automatically renew.
Matthew Morgan, chairman of the Oklahoma Indian Gaming Association, said Stitt has mischaracterized the entire discussion.
He said tribal leaders were dismayed last month to hear state negotiators were trying to create a new compact out of “whole cloth” when the current one is legally sound and viable.
Morgan said Stitt must recognize the auto-renewal provision before tribes will sit down and talk. That stance will continue.
“If he would recognize the automatic renewal, then tribes would be glad to sit down with him and talk with him in a productive way about how to move both our industry and the state forward,” he said. “But coming and creating this false narrative of uncertainty is not helpful for anyone.”
Tribes won’t pay more unless the state can offer a concession of beneficial value, he said. That hasn’t happened.
“We can’t pay more unless he offers more,” Morgan said. “And if he fails to offer more, we can’t provide them any more money. That’s just a tenant of federal law.”
State Rep. Matt Meredith (D-Tahlequah) released a statement in response to the press conference.
“It is disappointing that the governor has continued to push rhetoric instead of diplomacy as he seeks to adjust the compact,” said Rep. Matt Meredith. “This dispute began when the governor chose to write an op-ed about the tribal gaming compact before having conversations on the topic with tribal leaders."
Tribes have invested in the people of Meredith's district, even "while a Republican controlled state government continued to cut services in favor of tax cuts and credits to wealthy individuals and corporations," he said.
"We have the largest Indian Health Services medical facility in the country thanks to the tribes. Rural hospitals throughout the state closed because Republicans refused to accept the Medicaid expansion, but in Tahlequah, Oklahoma the tribes built a teaching hospital. Our Sheriff’s offices have patrol vehicles because of the tribes, and again when Republicans pulled money from our county roads and bridges fund, the tribes put money back into our community’s infrastructure," said Meredith.
He said that the tribal nations are Oklahoma's greatest ally.
"I would hope moving forward, the governor would negotiate in a way that is representative of the bond Oklahomans have with our Native brothers and sisters and in a way that respects tribal sovereignty," he said.
In a statement, Attorney General Mike Hunter, who is representing the state in the negotiations, said he supported Stitt’s appeal and encourages their tribal partners to come back to the table to begin negotiations.
“We are committed to a positive outcome that is mutually beneficial to both the state and the tribes,” he said.
For tribal leaders, though, the dispute boils down to an issue of right and wrong, said Stephen Greetham, chief legal counsel with the Chickasaw Nation.
The state offered the compacts, and the tribes accepted them.
Nationwide, states have entered into 306 compacts with tribes. Of those, only about 14 have a revenue share of 20 to 25 percent, he said.
Greetham said 92 percent of compacts have a rate around Oklahoma’s 10 percent or less.
“Now in the 11th hour, the state of Oklahoma is trying to create uncertainty,” he said. “The only uncertainty is that which (Stitt) is trying to put over a negotiation table as a leverage play. That’s unfortunate. Tribal leaders deserve better than that. Oklahoma deserves better than that.”
Janelle Stecklein covers the Oklahoma Statehouse for CNHI's newspapers and websites.