As more than 50 tribal representatives took the stage on Thursday afternoon inside Tulsa’s River Spirit Casino it was clear that if Gov. Kevin Stitt wants the state’s tribes to renegotiate a gaming compact that has dominated headlines recently, he has some convincing to do.
The graphic on the speaker’s podium said “Oklahoma United” and tribal leaders, along with Oklahoma Indian Gaming Association chairman Matt Morgan, said they were determined to present a united front to combat Stitt’s belief that the state’s gaming compact would expire on Jan. 1.
The tribes have maintained that the triggers have been hit that would automatically renew the gaming compact for another 15 years under the current agreement, which pays the state between 4 percent and 10 percent of casino-style gaming revenue.
Stitt this week offered the tribes an eight-month extension to the compact, a move that would allow more time for the two sides to come to an agreement but would also seem to require the tribes to agree that the compact will not automatically renew. The offer came days after Stitt said the tribes would be operating casinos illegally on Jan. 1, 2020, if new compact terms were not agreed upon.
In the proposed extension, Stitt notes that he has only changed language in the compact that would extend its end date from Jan. 1, 2020, to Aug. 31, 2020.
“As stated, I believe this will allow us time to meet in person, discuss our positions, understand one another, and reach an agreement that will benefit your tribe and the State for the foreseeable future.” Stitt wrote in the letters.
Donelle Harder, Stitt’s senior advisor, said on Thursday there had been “productive conversations” with tribal leaders from across Oklahoma, some of whom had expressed interest in potentially signing the extension, though tribal councils would need to be convened, a process that would likely play out into next week.
That proposed extension, Morgan told reporters on Thursday, is “utterly unnecessary,” and, he said, possibly something Stitt has no authority to offer in the first place.
“We would question his ability to extend a state law that he has said expired,” Morgan told reporters.
In response, Stitt’s office issued a press release in which the governor said he was “disappointed” in the response.
“The State offered the extension to protect the parties’ legal positions and to provide legal certainty to those working with or visiting the casinos as the January 1, 2020 deadline approaches,” Stitt said in the release. “I am disappointed that the tribes turned our offer down and refused our requests to negotiate new compact terms that better address the parties’ changing needs. I will continue to work to protect the State’s interests, and I hope that those running the casino industry will negotiate with the State in good faith as these compacts demand.”
Morgan said that the tribes were prepared to “invite Stitt to end the self-created crisis by accepting auto-renewal,” and to “avoid a protracted multi-year legal battle.”
But, Morgan warned, the tribes were also prepared to stand united and are “prepared for that battle.”
Eight tribal leaders spoke at the media conference, including Sac and Fox Chief Justin Wood, Citizen Potawatomi Nation Chairman John “Rocky” Barrett, Cherokee Nation Chief Chuck Hoskin, Comanche Nation Chairman William Nelson, Sr., Wichita and Affiliated Tribes President Terri Parton, Wyandotte Nation Chief Bill Friend, Kaw Nation Chairwoman Lynn Williams, and Muscogee Creek Nation Principal Chief James Floyd.
All talked about the importance of gaming to the tribes, as well as effect that revenue has had for the state as a whole.
Barrett said that when the compact was signed in 2004, “we could never have imagined” how it would have invigorated the economy of rural Oklahoma.
Hoskin called the compact a “win-win”for Oklahoma and the tribes, and said it was “not broken.”
“It is not broke and it will continue to work for many years to come and will continue on Jan. 1, 2020,” he said.
Hoskin said tribes were willing to talk with Stitt about exclusivity fees and rates, but “it will be a discussion that provides value for value” and one that will “work for the greater good of our nations and our state.”
Stitt has said recently that he has had interest from casino operators from outside Oklahoma who would be willing to move to the state immediately and pay the rates he’s seeking from the tribes. But Morgan cautioned that tribal leaders believe that would be a breach of the compact, and said he would “be surprised” if an outside group could “compete with what’s already here.”
Hoskin asked if an outside casino operator would be willing to invest in Oklahoma the way tribes do, saying that this week the Cherokee Nation provided a local school with computers and helped a rural community with access to drinking water.
“This is our home forever and we’re in it for the long haul,” he said.