Gaming will be Illegal. Jobs will be lost. 'I can't put Oklahoma through this,' says governor

WinStar World Casino and Resort is a casino and hotel located in Thackerville, Oklahoma, near the Oklahoma–Texas state line. It is owned and operated by the Chickasaw Nation. (WinStar photo)

The Associated Press

Oklahoma governor offers temporary extension; will hire out of state attorneys to lead negotiations

Sean Murphy

Associated Press

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt said Tuesday that he's taking over gambling negotiations with Native American tribes from the attorney general and plans to hire his own out-of-state legal team.

Stitt also announced at a news conference that he intends to offer tribes an extension that would allow casino gambling to continue after Jan. 1, when Stitt maintains the current compacts expire.

"The language in this extension will allow each side who signs on to the extension to retain their legal positions," Stitt said. "I want business to continue as usual while we resolve this dispute."

With just 18 days until the deadline, Gov. Kevin Stitt announced that he was changing course.

"The state cannot reach an agreement that meets the needs of every tribe within the next 18 days," Stitt said during a news conference on Tuesday.

Stitt said if an agreement wasn't reached, that Class III gaming would be illegal in Oklahoma on Jan. 1, 2020.

"I cannot put Oklahoma in this position," he said.

Attorney General Mike Hunter took over several months ago as the state's lead negotiator with the tribes, but Stitt said Tuesday that he felt it was best to have "one unified voice." He said his office is working on finalizing a contract with an out-of-state law firm to assist his office in negotiating with the tribes.

Stitt and the tribes are locked in an impasse over whether the 15-year agreements that give the tribes the exclusive rights to operate casinos in Oklahoma expire on Jan. 1. Stitt says they do, and he wants to renegotiate for a larger percentage of casino revenue.

Some tribal leaders have suggested that they're willing to renegotiate the fees they pay, but they first want Stitt to acknowledge that the compacts automatically renew.

Oklahoma Indian Gaming Association Chairman Matt Morgan said he couldn't comment on the idea of an extension since he hasn't seen any language, but he expressed disappointment with the governor.

"Tribal leadership has been clear from the beginning — if he acknowledges auto-renewal, we'll sit down and negotiate with him. But clearly he does not want to do that," Morgan said.

Morgan said he expects business to continue as usual at the state's tribal casinos after Jan. 1, and that the tribes are prepared to go to court, if necessary, to resolve the dispute.

“Unlike contracts, compacts are solemn agreements between two sovereigns that remain in force until both parties agree otherwise,” Chickasaw Governor Bill Anoatubby told Oklahoma Four News. “Former Solicitor General Seth Waxman issued a powerful legal opinion that reinforces our confidence that the compacts automatically renew on January 1. The State of Oklahoma listed certain conditions for automatic renewal in the compact they offered to the Tribes. That compact was accepted by the Tribes and approved by the federal government. We have honored the terms of the compact and intend to continue operating under that renewing agreement, and we expect the State to do the same.”

Oklahoma's current gambling compacts call for the tribes to pay between 4 percent and 10 percent of a casino's net revenue in "exclusivity fees," which gives tribes the exclusive rights to operate casinos in the state. Those fees generated nearly $139 million in payments to the state last year on roughly $2.3 billion in revenue from games covered under the compacts.

Nearly 60 percent of Oklahoma voters approved a state question in 2004 that authorized 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 state, ranging from gas station annexes to resort-style hotel casinos, many of them in border communities.

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