OKLAHOMA CITY — Oklahoma legislators have been hesitant to wade into the the debate over the state’s tribal gaming compacts, which has Gov. Kevin Stitt at odds with many of the state’s Native American tribes.
But some of the state’s Native American legislators chimed in recently, disputing Stitt’s assertion the compacts don’t automatically renew and criticizing the governor’s handling of the situation.
For the most part, Native American legislators that spoke to GateHouse Oklahoma said there was no harm in trying to renegotiate the compacts during the six-month window before they expire.
Rep. Collin Walke, D-Oklahoma City, said there are two aspects to the issue — how Stitt approached the renegotiation and whether there is room to renegotiate the compacts.
Stitt calling for renegotiating the compacts in a newspaper opinion piece caught the tribes off guard and didn’t show tribal leaders the respect they deserve, said Walke, who is Cherokee.
“Gov. 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.”
In a recent interview on Norman NPR affiliate KGOU, Stitt said he called leaders of the Five Civilized Tribes days before his editorial was published and before his office sent a letter to 35 tribes asking them to come to the table for negotiations. He did not detail what was said on the calls.
In place for nearly 15 years, the compacts can be renegotiated through the end of the year. Stitt has previously said he’s committed to open discussions with the tribes to create more funding for public education and grow opportunities for the tribes.
Walke said he fully supports the idea of negotiations between the state and the tribes so long as they are mutually beneficial.
As for renegotiating the compacts in order to boost state revenue, Walke said other options, like reinstating higher income tax rates on the state’s top earners, would be far more effective.
“There are more beneficial ways of going about and seeking revenue for the state of Oklahoma than looking toward the tribes,” he said. “Certainly, that is an avenue and I think that we should look at all possible avenues for increasing funding here in the state of Oklahoma. Period. End of story.”
Rep. Mark McBride, R-Moore, said in his seven years at the state Capitol there always have been rumblings from lawmakers wanting to alter the terms of the compacts.
“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 said.
McBride, who is a member of Citizen Potawatomi Nation, urged a more collaborative approach in which the parties involved get together to look at the costs and benefits involved in the current compacts and look at how renegotiated compacts may benefit both sides. He plans to discuss the compacts issue with Citizen Potawatomi Nation Chairman John “Rocky” Barrett.
Stitt spokeswoman Donelle Harder said the governor has been traveling the state to meet tribal leaders on their turf. She called the conversations productive.
“We believe that negotiations should continue and that there’s ample things to discuss,” she said.
In the KGOU interview, Stitt also said he plans to hire a top mediator to talk to the tribes about the state’s position and listen to their side.
Rep. Trey Caldwell, R-Lawton, said the compacts are pretty clear cut in that that they automatically renew if the parties can’t agree on new terms.
Caldwell’s interpretation of the compacts align with that of Oklahoma’s Native American tribes but differs from Stitt’s interpretation. Stitt has argued the compacts must be renegotiated because they will not automatically renew on Jan. 1, 2020.
Caldwell, who is a member of Choctaw Nation, said he understands Stitt is trying to position the state to get the best deal possible.
“I’m just taking a wait-and-see attitude toward it,” he said. “I think the tribes have solid legal standing when it comes to the current compacts, but I think like with everything within state government, Kevin Stitt is doing a great job in reviewing things.
A handful of other Republican legislators who are Native American declined to comment, saying the Legislature doesn’t get a say in renegotiating or approving the compacts. The compacts are agreed upon by Oklahoma’s governor and tribal leaders before being submitted to the federal government for final approval.
Stitt’s office said the governor plans to keep the Legislature involved throughout the renegotiating process.
“The governor will be engaged with the Legislature as the renegotiating process occurs,” Harder said. “Their voices are important, as they present the individuals in their respective districts.”
Senate Pro Tem Greg Treat, in 2016, pushed legislation that would have required state-tribal compacts to receive approval from two-thirds of the Senate. The bill ultimately stalled, but Treat aimed for Oklahoma’s approval process for state-tribal compacts to mirror the federal government practice in which two-thirds of the U.S. Senate must approve treaties with tribal nations.
If Stitt is successful in renegotiating the compacts, Oklahoma’s Legislature may have to pass legislation corresponding to the updated compacts. For example, if the updated compacts include provisions about sports betting, the Legislature may have to pass legislation legalizing sports betting in Oklahoma.
Stitt ruffled some feathers in Oklahoma’s Native American communities when he indicated he wants the tribes to pay more in gaming fees, said Rep. Ajay Pittman, D-Oklahoma City. It was unintentional, but it hindered the conversation going forward, she said.
Pittman, who is a Seminole Nation member, expressed concerns that a strained relationship between the state and the tribes could hurt communities where the tribes invest in roads, health care facilities and other infrastructure and programs that benefits tribal and non-tribal members alike.
“The tribes, in my opinion, have done their part over and over again,” she said. “We have to look at all the contributions that they make and how, if they are withdrawn from our communities, what void does that leave and who is going to fill it?”