Oklahoma governor: Casinos are an 'unjust enrichment to tribes'
The governor of Oklahoma continues his threats directed at tribal gaming. Pay the state more money or let for-profit, commercial casinos have a shot at the market.
“The facts are, commercial gamers will come to Oklahoma tomorrow, if I gave commercial gaming licenses, that would pay our state 350 million dollars," Gov. Kevin Stitt said in response to a tribal gaming lawsuit. "If Oklahomans, would they rather have 350 million, or would they rather have 137 million."
The Republican governor said that's not his preferred route. But he says it's an option.
Oklahoma Governor Kevin Stitt asked a federal judge on January 22 to shut down Class III tribal gaming in the state, putting thousands of jobs at risk. He has declared the gaming compact terminated, this rendering Class III gaming illegal in the state. In his argument, he contested Class III gaming resulted in “unjust enrichment to the tribes.”
Class III gaming includes card games, craps, roulette, and some slot machines.
Stitt requested an injunction from the court, “to prohibit unlawfully conducting such class III gaming activities until the Tribes negotiate a Tribal-State compact covering such games with the State.”
According to Stephen Greetham, senior counsel to the Chickasaw Nation, doing so would result in legal consequences:
"Tribes would no longer have to remit any form of revenue-sharing with the State. The renewing compacts’ revenue-share obligation, found at Part 11. A. requires Tribes to remit payments only if the State maintains ‘substantial exclusivity’ in the Oklahoma Class III gaming market for the 35 Tribes with renewing compacts.”
That would mean tribes would no longer have to pay a revenue share with the state.
However the governor's plan to open Oklahoma up to commercial gaming would require legislative approval.
But in an interview with the Tulsa World, Oklahoma House Speaker Charles McCall, R-Atoka. contends the compact has already renewed. “In my opinion, the compact has renewed for another 15 years," he said. “The governor has asked me my opinion. I have given him my opinion and my counsel on it. He has made his decision on his approach.”
The issue has forged bipartisan support from legislative party leaders in favor of auto-renewal of the compact.
“I agree with the speaker,” said House Minority Leader Emily Virgin, D-Norman. “I think they do automatically renew. I think that had been clear since day one.”
When Class III gaming became legal in Oklahoma, it was projected to produce some $70 million per year in exclusivity fees. This estimate was quickly surpassed. The state now brings in about $150 million per year in exclusivity fees that help fund education.
During Stitt’s gubernatorial campaign, he ran on being a pro-growth and pro-private sector candidate, which leaves Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin, Jr. wondering why he would go after such an important industry to the state.
“Commercial casino operators, many headquartered in Las Vegas, do not pave roads in their states, build homes for people in their communities, provide college scholarships for students in need, help classroom teachers buy teaching materials or keep hospitals open in rural, underserved communities,” said Hoskin Jr.
Unlike tribal casinos, for-profit commercial casinos have shareholders. Tribal gaming law requires tribes to reinvest revenue back into the tribe or state.
Tribal gaming supports close to 76,000 jobs in the state, many in rural communities.
According to the American Gaming Association, Oklahoma is home to the second-largest tribal casino market and $4.3 billion in supported wages. The AGA reports that 8-in-10 tribal casino employees report positive job satisfaction and 9-in-10 say it is a fun industry to work in.
Tribes say the threat to Class III gaming has brought on unnecessary economic anxiety to gaming vendors.
Pervasive Gaming LLC President John Bunch said, “We support the tribes in the lawsuit they have brought against Gov. Kevin Stitt. As a Native American-owned small business in Oklahoma City, Pervasive Gaming LLC stands with our tribal allies and we look forward to a prosperous 2020.”
Stitt is a citizen of the Cherokee Nation, the first tribal member to be elected governor in Oklahoma.
Indian Country Today reached out to the governor’s office for comment. They did not respond to the request.
Ben Pryor, Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma, researches American politics and political behavior. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org