Kevin Stitt stands up for all Oklahomans, including the smaller tribes

When Oklahoma Governor Kevin Stitt called last summer for fresh negotiations over  compacts that allow casino gaming in our state, leaders of the Big Tribes – absolutely dedicated to the unjust and inequitable status quo – set out to ‘play’ everyone. In the name of unity, smaller tribes went along.

Even those Indian nations with leaders who know better than anyone the unfairness of the last few decades (which allowed near-monopoly power ceded to the Chickasaw and other major players) went along, fearing that in light of that same history, they had no choice.
As a practical matter, this left them outside looking in, as powerful lawyers acting on behalf of powerful native leaders focused on reserving power, money, and influence for … those who already have plenty of power and influence.

But over recent months, Stitt has made more explicit his desire to forge a better bargain for not only the state and peoples of Oklahoma, but also for the smaller sovereigns who – now as in the past – deserve a better deal. Just days ago, in a commentary, Gov. Stitt reflected:
“I believe that a new compact should more equitably allocate fees among tribes. It should include protections to require vendors not to exceed national market rates. And it should address changing market conditions.

“The past 15 years have proven the exclusivity promised by the State to be more valuable than anyone anticipated. But that value has not been enjoyed equally by all tribes or shared appropriately with the State. Increasing fees at the highest market revenue levels to better support our public schools and mental health services while reducing fees to benefit the tribes operating smaller gaming operations ought to be a topic for discussion.”

In legal, academic and publishing circles dependent upon Big Tribe largesse, Stitt will never get all the credit he deserves for his determination to create a new reality. Right here, right now – we declare it willingly, and gratefully. 

Kevin Stitt has confronted the dubious actions of tribal leaders and their vendor partners who in the “real world” as presently defined skim $500 million or more from excessive rates while bitterly complaining about even modest proposals for increases in the exclusivity rates.

Stitt acts in defense of the state’s abiding interest in funding education, but he has become clearer in advancing prospects for some measure of equity for the smaller tribes.
Long have those troubled with the status quo hoped, even prayed, for a leader such as this. Now, we have that leader.

In that recent commentary, the governor accurately reflected that fifteen years ago the Big Tribe leaders “promised to renegotiate fees and exclusivity, regardless of whether the compacts renewed or expired. Unfortunately, most tribes have refused to renegotiate any part of the compact, unless the State first conceded that the compacts automatically renew indefinitely.

“I have tried to protect tribal gaming, the public, and our schools. The State attempted to initiate negotiations four times since the dispute started. The tribes have repeatedly refused to even listen to a proposal. The State proposed arbitration to resolve our disagreement. The tribes refused. We offered an 8-month compact extension that preserved everyone’s legal arguments to create more time for productive conversations. All but two tribes refused.”

While Stitt might have hoped for a reasoned and measured response, but he was rebuffed. Big Tribe lawyers sued to carve into stone the status quo. 

He responded: “I was deeply disappointed that our most successful gaming tribes, the Chickasaw, Choctaw, and Cherokee Nations, rejected the State’s desire to resolve this outside of the courtroom as well as the 8-month extension, choosing instead sue my office on New Year’s Eve. At no point had the State attempted to disrupt gaming operations. No advantage is gained by harming tribal economies or compromising school funding while this dispute is being resolved.”

The governor continued: “With respect to the lawsuit, we will defend our interpretation of the compact expiration provision. The State has not authorized any electronic gaming since 2004, when Oklahoma voters approved the Tribal-State compacts. I will work to enforce that expiration term because not doing so would allow the administrative acts of unelected officials to dictate state policy and effect significant changes in state governance.”

Like a sleeping giant awakened, the Cherokee who is governor of all Oklahomans responded with maneuvers of his own. He hired new counsel, two former U.S. Attorneys, to make his case for compacts more equitable for small tribes and the state. He stated where things stand:

“As this lawsuit progresses, I will continue to pursue negotiations of a new gaming compact that enhances opportunities for Oklahoma’s tribes, of all sizes, to fairly compete for business to ensure that no party is adversely impacted once the court rules. I am ready to meet with the tribes, as I have been since July.

“When we are all committed to listening to each other and coming together to one table, I am confident we can achieve a win-win for all 4 million Oklahomans today and well into the future.

Note: The above editorial is adapted from one appearing in The City Sentinel’s February 2020 print edition, forthcoming.