In a joint resolution issued at the end of August, the leaders of 34 Oklahoma tribal governments said that although they are willing to consider any proposals from the state government, they first want governor Kevin Stitt to acknowledge that the existing compact will automatically renew at the end of the year.
While Oklahoma tribal leaders welcomed a “warmer tone” from state governor Kevin Stitt, they continue to take issue with his insistence that the state’s gaming compact with the tribes will expire at the end of the year.
“[In July], Oklahoma’s governor surprised the Tribal governments with an op-ed announcing his intention to ignore the evergreen clause in the gaming compacts, and also
to enter into discussion to increase exclusivity fees,” explained Oklahoma Indian Gaming Association chairman Matthew L. Morgan, speaking to Casino Review. “Suffice it to say he had been ill-informed, and our membership has rightly spent a great deal of time and effort correcting that narrative, an effort that is ongoing.”
The leaders of 34 Oklahoma tribal governments met on 22 August and issued a second joint resolution in response to a letter from governor Stitt earlier in the month.
“We continue to look forward to a substantive proposal from the State regarding that part of the compact which may be renegotiated. We will consider such a proposal, however, only when the State of Oklahoma affirms the automatic renewal of the compact,” the text of the letter stated.
“We’re going to stand firm,” said Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma chief Gary Batton. Speaking during the tribe’s annual State of the Nation address at the Choctaw Nation Capitol in Tuskahoma on 2 September, Batton affirmed that if a new compact is not signed by January, the tribe will “continue functioning like we think it should”.
In a surprise announcement back in July, governor Stitt first revealed plans to renegotiate the state’s gambling agreement with the tribes as part of a push for a bigger slice of gaming revenue, while asserting that the existing compact would have to be renegotiated before it expires.
Nevertheless, the following month he toned down his rhetoric, instead inviting tribes to begin talks in September. “I propose we table the issue of the renewal or termination date of the existing compact, and use our time more productively by focusing on coming to a shared vision of gaming in Oklahoma for the future,” he told tribal leaders in the letter on 13 August.
The governor has designated attorney general Mike Hunter “to be an active leader on behalf of the State in these discussions alongside my office” and has proposed hiring a mediator to facilitate the talks.
“Many tribes have received Gov. Stitt’s most recent letter. While we appreciate his modified tone, and are pleased to see his inclusion of Attorney General Mike Hunter and the legislature, the original issues still remain, first and foremost of which is that the present Gaming Compact will automatically renew on January 1, 2020,” Morgan continued.
“Gov. Stitt’s position is at odds with the leaders of 34 Tribal Nations, who also agree that the rates under the present Gaming Compact should not change.
“We recognise that Gov. Stitt has the right under the present Gaming Compact to request a renegotiation of rates paid under the Gaming Compact, however a month has a passed and our request for a proposal from the Gov. Stitt has gone unanswered.”
While Native American legislators acknowledged there was no harm in trying to renegotiate the compact, they too criticised the governor’s handling of the issue.
“Governor Stitt has approached this in completely the wrong way,” he said. “He’s acting as though these are not sovereign nations and are rather simply employees of his company. I think that’s the wrong way to go about doing this,” said state representative Collin Walke.
“There are more beneficial ways of …seeking revenue for the state of Oklahoma than looking toward the tribes,” he said, adding that reinstating higher income tax rates on the state’s top earners would be a more effective way of boosting revenue instead of renegotiating the compacts.
According to OIGA figures, in the last 15 years, tribal gaming has generated more than $1.5bn in exclusivity fees for the state budget, and has created 75,885 jobs, primarily to citizens in rural Oklahoma, which translates to around $4.3bn in wages.
Meanwhile, state representative Mark McBride clarified that while he understood the economic rational behind wanting to take a fresh look at the compacts, he did not condone governor Stitt’s tack.
“I can see wanting to look at the compacts and explore the possibility of raising them, but I just don’t agree with the approach that was taken,” he stated.
60 percent of voters approved State Question 712 in 2004 which authorised expanded gambling, and nearly all the tribal nations in Oklahoma signed compacts with the state shortly thereafter. Casino gambling is now a booming industry in Oklahoma, with 130 casinos dotting the Sooner state, ranging from gas station annexes to resort-style hotel casinos, many of them in border communities.
GOLDEN MESA CASINO CELEBRATES GRAND OPENING
The Shawnee Tribe of Oklahoma opened the state’s newest casino in a ribbon-cutting ceremony on 12 September. Located near Guymon, the 42,000 sq ft property includes 600 slot machines and six table games, along with retail space and a diner. Chris Floyd, president of Shawnee Development, estimated that Golden Mesa Casino will have an annual economic impact of at least $36m a year, in addition to supporting nearly 175 jobs.
“For the first time it will allow us to be self sufficient and not have to depend on others and other governments,” said Greg Pitcher, a board member for Shawnee Development. After regaining tribal status in 2000, the Shawnee were then able to work on obtaining off-reservation land for the casino. “It really was kind of a long shot and it took a lot of years to do it and perfect it, but with the help of Global Gaming and the Chickasaw Nation we were able to finance it, get the job done, and we are looking forward to the benefits that our tribal members will have from that,” added Pitcher, who also handles government relations for the tribe.