Gov. Kevin Stitt says when it comes to renegotiating gaming compacts with Native tribes, the state should "call their bluff." What's going to happen if the tribes call his?
Earlier this week, Stitt indicated commercial casino operators are "very interested" in establishing gambling enterprises here. He claims he's talked "personally" with some, and they told him they'd "sign a deal tomorrow" to set up shop, and they'd be so grateful they'd fork over 18 percent in taxes to the state.
Tribal leaders could be forgiven for raising a collective eyebrow, or at least for wondering who – if anyone – Stitt has on the hook. There are several possibilities, including corporations well-established in Las Vegas. There's also another tycoon who has expressed frustration with what he deemed an unfair advantage for tribes that are ostensibly hampering him from building his own gambling empire – and that fellow currently occupies the Oval Office.
Stitt didn't name names; he's playing his cards close to the vest. But he's trying to deal himself a winning hand by telling tribes they have to give the state a bigger chunk of their proceeds to keep exclusivity rights to Class III gaming. Right now, they're paying anywhere from 4% to 10%, but Stitt wants to reshuffle the deck, and he claims the current pact is set to expire Jan. 1. Tribal leaders disagree, and so does former Gov. Brad Henry, under whom the compacts were established 15 years ago.
Stitt's position is understandable, from a purely revenue standpoint. In theory, he wants more money for services that are available to all Oklahomans, not just tribal members. But that position is also untenable when considering how much money the tribes already pour into state coffers, not to mention the chirping of crickets coming from state officials at any suggestion the oil and gas industry should be asked to shoulder a bigger share of the burden.
Oklahoma is already getting a sweet deal from indigenous nations. The 141 tribal casinos, compacted through 35 federally recognized tribes, have a $9.8 billion annual economic impact and employ about 76,000 people. In 2016-'17 alone, the casinos generated more than $2.2 billion in revenue. To put the numbers in perspective, if these were non-tribal operations, Oklahoma would be the sixth-largest commercial casino state in the country.
Tribal leaders – including Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. – have pointed out how much money they've allocated to education, infrastructure and health care. These revenue streams benefit all Oklahomans, not just tribal citizens. What Hoskin and other chiefs could also add is that without the infusion of tribal funds, many communities across the state would be decimated – and so would many schools and a network of roads. Opening the doors to outside gaming could jeopardize the millions the state already enjoys in tribal monies.
Officials with Native nations aren't necessary playing the trump card that makes a difference to most politicians, because they're too subtle for that. So we'll say it for them: Stitt and his cohorts should remember that the thousands of casino employees whose jobs he's putting at risk are voters, and so are the members of their extended families.
Given the widespread opinion of legal experts, who believe the compacts automatically renew Jan. 1, this seems like a bet Stitt can't win. He needs to take his chips and go back to the mansion before the state's wallet shrinks more than it already has.