Judge sides with Oklahoma tribes over gambling compacts

Kolby KickingWoman

‘Tribal gaming in this state will continue to be strong, not only for the tribes, but for all of Oklahoma,’ Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. says

Kolby Kickingwoman
Indian Country Today

Oklahoma tribes secured another win in court Tuesday, this time regarding tribal gaming compacts with the state.

A federal judge in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Oklahoma ruled in favor of nine tribes that argued their compacts automatically renewed for a 15-year term on Jan. 1.

The judge’s ruling ends a monthslong court fight after Republican Gov. Kevin Stitt, Cherokee, said the compacts needed to be renegotiated. The compacts define how much gambling revenue the tribes must pay to the state and which games are allowed.

The original joint lawsuit against Stitt was filed by the Cherokee, Chickasaw and Choctaw nations and eventually joined by six other tribes in the state. The tribes argued they had fulfilled conditions in the compacts in order for them to renew.

In the decision, Chief U.S. District Court Judge Timothy DeGiusti found that the Oklahoma Horse Racing Commission had issued licenses to at least two horse racetracks to operate for 2020.

Being that the commission took “governmental actions,” the requirements for the compacts’ automatic renewal were met.

“The State’s argument that the language has unintended consequences (resulting in perpetual renewal) is not persuasive,” DeGiusti wrote.

Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. said in a statement that the tribe was pleased with the ruling and looks forward to continuing a strong relationship with the state.

“Tribal gaming in this state will continue to be strong, not only for the tribes, but for all of Oklahoma, contributing vital education dollars into our public schools and bolstering health care, roads and communities,” Hoskin said. “Everything in our compact now remains the same, and we hope we can move forward and build a relationship on respect with Gov. Stitt in the future.”

Stitt, meanwhile, said he is “deeply disappointed” by the decision.

“It confirms my fears, and the fears of many fellow Oklahomans, that the State entered into a poorly negotiated deal and now we must bear the cost of this mistake,” he said in a statement.

Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt gestures during a news conference concerning the state's compact with the Oklahoma Tribes for gambling during a news conference Tuesday, Dec. 17, 2019, in Oklahoma City. 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. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)
Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt gestures during a Dec. 17 news conference in Oklahoma City concerning the state's compact with the Oklahoma Tribes. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki, File)

Tuesday’s ruling, coupled with the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent finding that much of the eastern part of the state remains reservation land, means Oklahomans have “important questions to face regarding our future,” Stitt said.

“Among other things, we will need to explore the challenges of who will pay taxes and who won’t, of how we will guarantee a competitive marketplace, and of how the State will fund core public services into the next generation,” he said. “In short, we face a question of constitutional proportions about what it means to be the state of Oklahoma and how we regulate and oversee all business in our state.”

Oklahoma passed its State-Tribal Gaming Act in 2004, establishing laws for it to enter into gaming compacts with the federally recognized tribes.

As part of the compacts, tribes must pay an “exclusivity fee” ranging from 4 percent to 10 percent of a casino’s net revenue.

Stitt was looking to renegotiate that percentage.

According to the Oklahoma Indian Gaming Association, since 2006, tribes have paid the Oklahoma state government more than $1.1 billion in exclusivity fees.

Beyond the taxes, fees and additional tourism Oklahoma tribal casinos bring to the state, they also invest in infrastructure, education, health care and employ more than 55,000 people.

FILE - In this Dec. 17, 2019, file photo, Oklahoma Indian Gaming Association Chairman Matt Morgan speaks during a news conference outside the state in Oklahoma City. Morgan is rejecting Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt's latest casino gambling offer and accused the governor of trying to take advantage of the tribes during the coronavirus pandemic. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki, File)
In this Dec. 17 photo, Oklahoma Indian Gaming Association Chairman Matt Morgan speaks during a news conference outside the state in Oklahoma City. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki, File)

Matthew Morgan, chairman of the association, said the court confirmed what tribal leaders have always known: that the language of the compacts is unambiguous and automatically renewed on the first day of the new year.

“We look forward to our tribal governments’ continued work under these gaming compacts and our continued contributions to the economic stability and health of our tribal nations and Oklahoma,” Morgan said in a statement.

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The Associated Press contributed to this report 

Kolby KickingWoman, Blackfeet/A'aniih is a reporter/producer for Indian Country Today. He is from the great state of Montana and currently reports for the Washington Bureau. Follow him on Twitter - @KDKW_406. Email - kkickingwoman@indiancountrytoday.com

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