OKLAHOMA CITY (KFOR)–Oklahoma Governor Kevin Stitt came out swinging at a news conference to discuss negotiations for the state’s tribal gaming compacts.
Currently, Native American tribes pay the state more than $140 million a year in gaming exclusivity fees from casinos. However, some state leaders say it is time for that to change.
Oklahoma tribes earn $4.5 billion each year thanks to casino-style gaming. Of that money, anywhere from 4 to 10 percent goes back to the state in exclusivity fees.
Since the 15-year deal between the state and the tribes is set to expire in January, Stitt recently sent a letter to 35 tribal leaders saying it is time to renegotiate the terms of the agreement.
On Thursday, Gov. Stitt held a news conference to discuss a stalemate in the ongoing negotiations.
“I was elected to represent all 4 million Oklahomans,” Gov. Stitt said. “I’m not elected or here to play favorites.”
Stitt says that while he values the tribes, he believes that the gaming compact needs to be fair to both parties.
“I don’t think there’s any difference when you pull a slot machine in Oklahoma versus when you pull a slot machine in Connecticut,” Stitt said.
Stitt says that since July, he has been working to renegotiate the compact but hasn’t gotten any closer to a deal.
“They have refused to communicate with me,” he said.
The tribes have contended the compact automatically renews if new agreements aren’t reached, but the governor disagrees.
“This compact was signed 15 years ago and the fact is that it expires on January 1, 2020. This is going to cause extreme uncertainty if we don’t renegotiate by January 2020,” he said.
Stitt listed the gaming compact deals for other states as follows:
- Connecticut: 20%
- New York: 18-25%
- Florida: 12-25%
- Arkansas: 13-20%
- Oklahoma: 4-6%.
“This affects education, this affects mental health, this affects roads and bridges,” Stitt said.
On Thursday, he said that if nothing happens, the case will likely end up in court.
“It just defies logic,” he said.
Minutes after the news conference ended, officials with the Oklahoma Indian Gaming Association responded to the arguments.
“I think we were disheartened to hear Gov. Stitt speak the way he did about our industry,” said Matthew Morgan, chairman with the Oklahoma Indian Gaming Association.
Morgan argues that Stitt is misinformed about the current compact.
“He failed to read the entire paragraph that all of the triggers for automatic renewal have been met,” Morgan said.
Morgan says they are confident in their reading of the law.
“Our compact is sound, legally viable, there are mechanisms to do everything the state has offered to us in the past,” he said.
Stephen Greetham, senior counsel for the Chickasaw Nation, said Stitt only read the first clause of the compact at the news conference but didn’t mention the paragraph that talks about the compact renewing automatically.
“The compact renews. There’s no reasonable argument that it doesn’t,” said Greetham.
When it comes to comparing compacts in other states, Morgan argues that the other states are in entirely different situations. While most states have a compact agreement with a handful of tribes, Oklahoma has 35 tribes participating in the agreement.
Greetham says that while Stitt gave rate examples from several other states, he adds that 92% of the other compacts in the country are similar to Oklahoma’s rate.
“New York has a population of about five times that of Oklahoma; their income is about 30 percent higher,” Greetham said, suggesting that the economy also plays a role in the rate.
“Would the governor propose that we pay the same income tax as every other state in the country?” Greetham said.
As we get closer to that Jan. 1 deadline, tribal leaders say nothing will change on their end.
“The tribes are going to continue to operate,” Greetham said.
The Oklahoma Indian Gaming Association says that state leaders only expected to receive $825 million from the current compact. In reality, the state has collected $1.5 billion over the first term.
Stitt says that no one had any idea what the gaming industry would look like 15 years ago, adding that he believes there are a lot of things wrong with the existing compact.
However, Greetham says that Oklahoma is receiving more than $400 per citizen from the current compact.
“No other state pulls in numbers like that,” he said.
When asked about the uncertainty that Gov. Stitt mentioned, tribal leaders say there is no such thing.
“The only uncertainty is that which is coming out of his office,” Greetham said.
“Creating this false narrative of uncertainty isn’t helpful for anyone,” Morgan said.