Tribes reject state’s offer of arbitration in gaming compact dispute
By Ken Childers
Tribal nations with casinos in Oklahoma have rejected the state’s offer of arbitration in a dispute over whether existing gaming compacts automatically renew at the end of the year.
In July, Governor Kevin Stitt sent a letter to tribal leaders, followed by a newspaper editorial, stating that the current compacts need to be renegotiated before they expire at the end of the 2019.
Tribal leaders have reportedly penned a letter to state Attorney General Mike Hunter, saying they remain unified in the belief the compacts automatically renew and arbitration is “not presently justified.”
The letter to Hunter follows a recent meeting between tribal and state leaders. On Oct. 28, about 200 tribal leaders, representing the 31tribes that operate casinos in Oklahoma, met with Stitt’s staff and Hunter at the Citizen Potawatomi Nation’s Grand Casino in Shawnee.
The tribes pay fees ranging from four to 10 percent of a casino’s net revenue and receive exclusive rights to operate casinos in Oklahoma. Those fees generated nearly $139 million for the state last year, and Stitt indicates the state’s share should be larger.
In his editorial published in the July 8 edition of the Tulsa World, Stitt said, “today, tribal gaming is the eighth-largest industry in Oklahoma. We are now the third-largest gaming market in the country, behind only Nevada and California, generating an estimated $4.5 billion in annual revenue for the tribes, and home to the world’s largest casino. Moreover, in large part due to the success of the gaming partnership between the state and the tribes, the tribes have become the third-largest employer in the state, providing jobs to more than 54,000 Oklahomans.
“The agreements between the state and the tribes giving them exclusivity to the gaming industry are, however, terminating as of Jan. 1, 2020, and it is imperative that we come to terms on new compacts prior to the end of the year. The easiest thing to do is simply renew the existing compacts ‘as is,’ rather than do the hard work of closely reviewing and negotiating new compacts that reflect the state of affairs today. I believe, however, that voters elected me to look at everything in state government with a fresh eye and, where necessary, make the difficult decisions that are in the best interest of all 4 million Oklahomans,” Stitt added.
Stitt’s letter was immediately met with backlash from tribal leaders. On July 12, the Inter-Tribal Council of the Five Civilized Tribes, which included the principle chief of the Muscogee Creek Nation (MCN), approved a resolution denouncing the governor’s call to renegotiate the compacts.
Okfuskee County lies within the boundaries of the MCN, which operates a casino in Okemah as well as eight other casinos throughout the state.