OKLAHOMA CITY — Amid compact negotiations, Oklahoma’s governor is wagering residents are too smart to be influenced by a decade of philanthropic giving and an aggressive advertising campaigned aimed at swaying public sentiment.

Gaming compact negotiations are heating up ahead of Jan. 1. Republican Gov. Kevin Stitt said Oklahomans have likely noticed the tribes started airing a multi-million dollar media blitz touting all their good works.

“If you’ve got to run advertisements that tell us how great you are, that’s a little disingenuous,” Stitt said. “Obviously, they’re trying to get control of public opinion because they have the sweetest deal in the country for running and operating casinos, and they don’t want anything to change. I don’t begrudge people for trying to advocate for the best position for them.”

Stitt believes the compacts expire Jan. 1. The tribes disagree and discussions over compact renewal and rates remain largely at an impasse since tribal leaders kicked the state’s negotiators out of an October meeting.

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 due for renewal. Those sovereign nations operate more than 130 facilities, tribal leaders said.

“Some are talking to me, some are telling me to go pound sand and that this thing auto-renews,” Stitt said during an interview this week.

Since the state won’t be able to launch its own counter advertising blitz, Stitt is trying to generate his own public support by being as transparent as possible about negotiations, which have historically occurred behind closed doors.

Stitt said people may think he’s at a disadvantage when facing off against the tribes, but he insists he is not.

“When truth is on my side, we’re going to win this argument,” he said. “I do think the polling shows that Oklahomans are with me on this.”

But Stitt, who is finishing his first year in office, is facing a formable opponent in the tribes. Observers say they’ve strategically spent the past 15 years building casinos along with goodwill, political capital and jobs across the state.

“I think the tribes have definitely built some wonderful facilities across the state for destination gaming, and they’re using those resources in the community to expand different businesses in the communities, not just gaming,” said Tad Jones, director of the Will Rogers Memorial Museum and Birthplace Ranch in Claremore and a former Republican House lawmaker.

In the past 15 years, he said the Cherokee Nation has been a great partner, providing financial support and holding events at the museum.

“I think (tribes) are pretty well respected,” Jones said. “They’ve done a lot across Oklahoma. They’ve definitely been great community partners across the state.”

Local communities, especially in rural Oklahoma, understand the partnership they have with tribes in their communities, said Matthew Morgan, chairman of the Oklahoma Indian Gaming Association. It’s a deserving story that should be publicized through the advertising campaign.

“I think the tribes have been good neighbors for 15 years and beyond,” he said. “We’ve always lived among and with our neighbors and have tried to be good neighbors.”

He said the advertising concept has been in discussion for two or three years, but has only recently hit television, radio and print. He did not know how much tribes were spending on the campaign. Stitt contends it’s around $16 million.

“(It) goes a long ways toward educating the folks who might not understand the good that tribes do in their communities,” Morgan said.

Morgan said Stitt has certain advantages as the governor of Oklahoma.

“The bully pulpit carries some weight,” he said. It’s incumbent on tribal leaders to refute bad information and share their individual stories.

“I think tribal leaders, we’ve been clear from the beginning. Other than our educational campaign, these are not discussions we wanted to have in the public forum,” Morgan said.

When tribes succeed, the state succeeds, he said.

“I think personally he’s fighting an uphill battle on this,” Morgan said. “I wish he would stop, and we could start some productive conversations. He could do some real damage, and that concerns me greatly.”

Stitt may be at a disadvantage facing tribes that have been generating goodwill and working toward this moment for 15 years, said Dave Bond, vice president for advocacy at the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs, a conservative-leaning think tank.

“(But) I think the governor is doing a pretty good job of getting the word out to folks about what a sweet deal casinos in Oklahoma are getting,“ he said.

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

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