COLUMN: Stitt's leadership destabilizing for Oklahoma

Brent Been

Gov. Kevin Stitt’s record in the courts has been a dismal failure in his attempts to alter tribal gaming compacts and reform Medicaid management. And while Stitt’s polling may be sound, the governor has made some very influential enemies, such as the Indian tribes and the Oklahoma health care industry.

Looking back on a Tulsa forum this past summer on the McGirt ruling, it is easy to understand the poisoned relationship between the Oklahoma tribes and Stitt. This was to have been a community impact program. But instead, the forum morphed into fear-mongering, with Stitt inquiring about property taxes. And when a question was asked about tribal sovereignty, there was silence, at which point Stitt left the room.

There was also a complete lack of tribal representation on the panel of district attorneys. Thus, the event was really a political campaign for Stitt, devoid of any tribal leadership. Oklahoma Attorney General John O’Connor claims the high court’s decision “has caused chaos affecting every corner of life in Oklahoma.”

Are Oklahoma state budgets now at a crisis level of concern? Has the state of Oklahoma really become a criminal dystopia? The answer is no. What has transpired, though, is much hyperbole and unsubstantiated numbers from O'Connor. The scare tactics by Stitt and Hunter are very transparent when you consider that even the Oklahoma Tax Commission has stated losing $200 million a year in revenue from the Five Tribes’ reservations will not decimate state budgets. And how can the state Attorney General’s Office really believe the exaggerated claims in terms of the impact of the McGirt ruling when the GOP-led state Legislature enacted a $500 million income tax cut during the past legislative session?

Ultimately, any fears about convictions being overturned were allayed by the Oklahoma Criminal Court of Appeals when the court ruled the ruling was not retroactive. It is fair to say Stitt’s actions toward the McGirt decision are nothing but a part of the broader Republican culture wars on the national level. Stitt claims his Cherokee identity gives him some first-hand knowledge of how much clout that tribes have in Oklahoma, yet the tribes united against Stitt. Remember that Stitt sought to raise the fees tribes pay to operate casinos. Stitt, immediately after taking office, moved in a very aggressive manner against the tribes when he warned the casinos would be operating illegally if a new compact wasn’t agreed to. Stitt’s opening salvo to rewrite the 2004 compacts was a distraction for the state.

Stitt’s plan ultimately failed when a federal judge ruled in favor of the tribes. And the governor fared no better when the Oklahoma State Supreme Court ruled against gaming compacts negotiated between Stitt and the Kialegee Tribal Town and the United Keetoowah Band of Cherokees. This compact did not involve any legislative input, which was outside the bounds of the balance of power between the state executive and legislative branches.

Stitt lost the battle in the state courts in his endeavor to privatize Medicaid as well. And the ruling blasted the managed for-profit model because there was no approval from state lawmakers. Did Stitt even consult Oklahoma’s past experiment with privatization in the 1990s? The program had only been available to residents in urban areas. And three of the original five managed care organizations dropped out so that by 2000, the system had been destabilized.

In the final analysis, Stitt’s style of leadership has been destabilizing for Oklahoma.

Brent Been is a Tahlequah educator with an emphasis on civics and history.

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