New Year deadline? Tribes sue Oklahoma governor over gaming compacts

Choctaw Casino Resort in Durant, Oklahoma

The Associated Press

Two of the 39 tribes sign a deal with state

Sean Murphy

Associated Press

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — Three of the most powerful tribes in Oklahoma filed a federal lawsuit against the state's governor on Tuesday, asking the court to help resolve a dispute over gambling at tribal casinos.

The Cherokee, Chickasaw and Choctaw nations want a federal judge to determine whether the state compacts that allow gambling exclusively at tribal casinos automatically renew on Jan. 1 for another 15-year term. The tribes contend all the conditions have been met for the compacts to renew.

"For some time, we have tried to establish meaningful intergovernmental engagement regarding our gaming compacts, but you have continued to reject our compacts' plain terms," Cherokee Nation Chief Chuck Hoskin, Chickasaw Nation Gov. Bill Anoatubby and Choctaw Nation Chief Gary Batton wrote in a joint letter to Stitt on Tuesday. "Recently, you have gone further, stating allegations against us and threats to our operations."

Chickasaw Nation Governor Bill Anoatubby said the nation has a "solemn duty to protect the sovereign rights of our Tribal Nations."

"While we prefer negotiation to litigation, the Federal court is now the only reasonable alternative to bring legal certainty to this issue," Governor Anoatubby said. We remain hopeful we will continue to have a productive and mutually beneficial relationship with the State of Oklahoma once we have resolved this issue.”

Choctaw Nation Chief Batton said the tribes need the clarity of a legal resolution to the conflict because the "uncertainty and has been seen as a threat to our employees and our business partners."

Cherokee Nation Chief Chuck Hoskin, Jr. said the Cherokee Nation would continue its committment to being a good partner and "will continue to do as a peaceful, sovereign nation." But like other tribal leaders said the nation has "little choice" but to litigate the issue.

While the Seminole Nation was not a party to the lawsuit on filing, Chief Greg Chilcoat said Governor Stitt’s public position had triggered concerns among vendors and others who work with Oklahoma Tribal governments, causing some to worry about instability in the State’s economy. “Rather than respectfully engage with the Tribes and seek an amicable resolution, Governor Stitt has continued to insist on our compact’s termination,” Chief Chilcoat said. “While his position is completely at odds with our compact’s language, he has succeeded in causing uncertainty that has an economic consequence. His inconsistent approach has been unfortunate and unnecessary.”

Muscogee (Creek) Nation Chief James Floyd made the following statement. “The Muscogee (Creek) Nation stands united with our fellow Nations and supports the legal action taken by these three Tribes today. These efforts are necessary to bring about a swift resolution to the question posed by Governor Stitt.”

Matthew L. Morgan, chairman of the Oklahoma Indian Gaming Association, made the following statement:

“The Tribes remain firmly united on the automatic renewal of the compacts. We have communicated our position to Governor Stitt on numerous occasions in hopes of finding a practical path forward benefitting both the State and Tribes. That said, as leaders of sovereign nations, the Tribal leaders must honor the compacts and will continue to do so on January 1, 2020, as they’ve done the past 15 years. Tribal leaders have the right as well as the responsibility to protect their citizens. Tribal leaders applaud the action taken today by the Cherokee, Choctaw and Chickasaw Nations to seek certainty on the matter of automatic renew through the Federal court.”

A statement from the Quapaw Nation said it stands firmly behind these tribes.

"The automatic renewal provision was and is a very important part of the Compact," Quapaw Chairman John L. Berrey said. "The automatic renewal provision was and is a very important part of the Compact. Tribes entered into the Compact with the comfort that this provision would ensure decades of stability and certainty. Many tribes have taken risks and have invested substantially in gaming — and in Oklahoma — on this basis, and have financed and built quality facilities — including fine, destination resort hotels — and they have built a first‑rate hospitality industry the state never had before. They would not have done so if a governor could simply walk away from the Compact overnight."

Oklahoma's new Republican Gov. Kevin Stitt contends the gaming compacts expire on Jan. 1 and that casino gambling after that date will be illegal. Stitt has signaled he wants to renegotiate the compacts to give the state a larger slice of revenue. An attempt by Stitt earlier in December to offer an extension of the compacts while negotiations continued was rejected by most of the tribes.

Stitt announced Tuesday that two of the 39 federally recognized tribes in the state — the Kialegee Tribal Town and the United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians — agreed to an eight-month extension of the compacts.

"The state of Oklahoma offered an extension, with no strings attached, to all tribes that operate casinos in the state, and my door continues to be open for more tribes to join who are worried about impending uncertainty," Stitt said in a statement.

Stitt added that he was disappointed that most of the other tribes in the state rejected his previous offers for arbitration or a temporary extension.

The dispute between the governor and the tribes has grown contentious since Stitt first signaled in an op-ed this summer that he wanted to renegotiate the compacts. Last week, Stitt's top adviser on tribal issues, Lisa Billy, resigned and accused the governor of creating an "unnecessary conflict" with the tribes.

Tribal officials have signaled they are open to renegotiating the rates of the compacts, but not until the governor acknowledges that the compacts renew on Jan. 1. Stitt has not conceded that point and maintains the compacts expire.

Under the existing compacts, approved by Oklahoma voters in 2004, tribes pay the state "exclusivity fees" between 4 percent and 10 percent on gambling revenue in exchange for the exclusive right to operate casinos. Those fees generated nearly $139 million for the state in the 2018 fiscal year, most of it earmarked for education, on roughly $2.3 billion in revenue from games covered under the compacts.

Since the compacts were approved, casino gambling has exploded in Oklahoma with more than 130 casinos dotting the state, ranging from gas station annexes to resort-style casinos, many of them in border communities. The Winstar World Casino in a rural part of the state's Red River border with Texas includes massive hotel towers, more than a dozen restaurants and a 400,000-square-foot (37,161- square-meter-) casino floor billed as the largest in the world. Tour buses filled with gamblers from neighboring Texas routinely shuttle into the casino's parking lot, which is also packed with cars sporting Texas license plates.

Indian Country Today contributed content to this report.

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