Attorney General steps aside from Indian gaming negotiations
Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter announced Tuesday that he has stepped aside as the state's lead negotiator on tribal gaming compacts to allow Gov. Kevin Stitt to negotiate directly with the tribes.
Under the state constitution, "the governor is given authority to enter into agreements with the federally recognized tribes," the attorney general's office said Tuesday in a prepared statement. "Accordingly, the attorney general and the governor have agreed to return the lead agency over tribal gaming compact negotiations to the Governor’s Office. This will allow the governor and his legal counsel to negotiate directly with tribes to hopefully develop a path forward.”
The governor, meanwhile, has called a news conference for 2 p.m. Tuesday at the state Capitol to discuss the status of tribal gaming compact negotiations. Those negotiations appear to remain stalled in a basic disagreement over whether the compacts automatically renew on Jan. 1 when they are scheduled to expire.
The tribes have taken the position that they automatically renew, while Stitt insists that they do not.
Stitt has repeatedly told the public he wants tribes to pay a much higher exclusivity rate on on the Las Vegas-style Class III slot machine type games that they operate than the 4-6 percent graduated rate that they have been paying under the current 15-year model gaming compact.
Stephen Greetham, senior legal counsel for the Chickasaw Nation, said tribal leaders are anxious to hear what Stitt says at the news conference.
"I am reading between the lines like everyone else, but I'm very anxious to hear what he has to say," Greetham said.
In anticipation of Stitt's news conference, several Oklahoma tribal leaders issued a news release Tuesday reiterating their position that the compacts automatically renew Jan. 1, but that they are willing to negotiate exclusivity rates.
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“Tribal leaders remain open to negotiations about exclusivity fee rates,” Choctaw Chief Gary Batton said. “We have not received a formal proposal from the state. We have always been open to a fair and reasonable discussion on rates and still are today as long as Governor Stitt is willing to honor the plain language of our existing agreement, which includes automatic renewal.”
Chickasaw Gov. Bill Anoatubby said the tribes believe Stitt's insistence the compacts must be renegotiated by January 1, 2020, is unfounded. Tribal leaders said they plan to continue operating casinos after that date, even if no agreement has been reached.
“The holidays are some of the busiest times of the year for the entertainment industry and casinos are no different," said Seminole Nation Chief Greg Chilcoat. "The more than 75,000 Oklahomans who work in the tribal gaming industry in Oklahoma will provide our patrons from Oklahoma, Texas, Arkansas, Kansas, Missouri and Colorado with a wonderful entertainment experience on New Year’s Day and beyond.”
Tribal leaders said they plan to continue to remit their exclusivity fees to the state next year, even if the dispute has not been resolved.
“We will continue to fulfill our commitments under the compacts,” Muscogee (Creek) Nation Principal Chief James Floyd said.
The tribes said that should help the state avoid any unexpected and budget shortfall next year.
In fiscal year 2019, alone, the tribes paid the state more than $148 million in exclusivity fees, records show.
Any drop in those fees could prove challenging for legislators in light of difficulties currently facing the state's oil and gas industries.
Stitt has publicly mentioned having recent conversations with commercial gaming representatives who have voiced an interest in coming to Oklahoma.
Tribal leaders insisted Tuesday that introducing corporate commercial gaming to Oklahoma would be a complicated process that would require the Legislature to change the current law. They claim that would constitute a breach of their compact, which could cause the state to forfeit its right to share in any tribal gaming revenues.“The mature and competitive nature of the Oklahoma market would also make it difficult for a private commercial operator to succeed in Oklahoma," said Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin, Jr. "It would be exceptionally disruptive and put hundreds of millions of dollars for the state at risk. Corporate commercial operators export most of their money out of state for the benefit of their shareholders and executives. On the other hand, tribes invest their money in Oklahoma to help create a better, stronger and more prosperous state benefiting all Oklahomans.”
Hoskins said tribal leaders are considering a framework for a potential discussion with the governor on rates.“Absent a proposal, leaders will be working on a framework for a reasonable conversation on rates that will deliver value-for-value benefit for both the tribes and the state,” Hoskin said. “We are thoughtful in our approach as we meticulously consider ideas at this time – we will be ready whenever the time comes to have a conversation.”
“Tribes value the relationship we have with the state,” Floyd said. “History shows we can accomplish a lot for all four million Oklahomans by working together rather than opposing each other.”