Gaming Expansion Going Nowhere In Oklahoma As Politicians Fight Among Themselves

Governor's 2020 tribal compact under fire as case makes its way through federal court

In Oklahoma, a long-simmering brouhaha between Gov. Kevin Stitt and Indian Country is now pitting state leaders against one another.

Attorney General Gentner Drummond — at the request of Senate and House leadership — agreed Tuesday to represent the state in a fight against the U.S. Department of the Interior. The move means that Drummond will file to replace the attorney backed by Stitt in a case that argues that the DOI was out of bounds when it “deemed approved” a group of compacts between Stitt and two of the state’s smaller tribes in 2020.

If the phrase “deemed approved” sounds familiar, that’s because a pair of Florida parimutuels are suing the DOI for also allowing a deadline to expire and a compact to become legal without the federal agency signing off on it. In that case, the future of sports betting in Florida hangs in the balance.

In Oklahoma, the compacts involve how to spend casino revenue and include the opportunity to allow sports wagering and some additional casino games, but what’s really at issue in Oklahoma is the governor’s steadily deteriorating relationship with Indian Country and the question of whether he overstepped his authority.

Oklahoma, with 39 federally recognized tribes operating about 130 casinos, is the second-biggest tribal state in the U.S. after California. Neither state has legal sports betting, but both have Las Vegas-style casinos dotting reservations that produce hundreds of millions in revenue each year.

Compacts under fire

In 2020, Stitt negotiated compacts with two small tribes that would allow them to offer sports betting while paying the state 1.1% of handle on wagers. The compacts also would allow expansion of casino games and address other key tribal issues including hunting and fishing licenses and tobacco sales.

After the compacts were negotiated, Oklahoma Senate President Pro Tempore Greg Treat and House Speaker Charles McCall filed a legal challenge in state Supreme Court claiming that Stitt overstepped his power during compact negotiations. The compacts were not approved by the state legislature. The state Supreme Court ultimately ruled that the compacts were invalid.

After the ruling, the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw and Citizen Potawatomi Nations filed in federal court claiming that the DOI should not have approved the compacts. Stitt hired counsel to represent his interests in the case, but now Drummond is seeking to represent Stitt and the state.

“While Gov. Stitt and I are both elected Republican leaders who agree on many issues, I have been highly critical of his dealings with our Native American tribes,” Drummond said, according to the McAlester News-Capital. “The governor is free to make his own decisions regarding how he wants to interact with the tribes, but he is not free to violate Oklahoma law. I am taking this action in order to uphold the law and defend our constitution.”

Governor’s actions create rifts

The compacts that Stitt negotiated created a rift in Indian Country. In most states, tribes negotiate compacts together. To do so, they must sort out their own issues — what is good for one tribe is not always good for another — but in this case, Stitt entertaining conversations with just two smaller tribes is viewed by other tribes as a violation. About 20 other tribes are now siding with state legislators, and the Associated Press reported Treat’s comments that while the governor’s office has historically negotiated compacts, the legislature also has the power to do so.

The compact issues aren’t the only bad blood festering between Indian Country and Stitt. During the legislative session this year, Stitt vetoed multiple contract extensions and much of the tribal-related legislation the lawmakers approved. Lawmakers have met in several special sessions to overturn some of the tribal vetos.

Stitt’s animosity toward the tribes continues to erode Indian Country’s relationship with the state, but the tribes were unable to unseat him in last year’s election and will have to find a way to work with Stitt or other leaders for the next three years. Drummond’s move and the legislature’s plans make it clear that Stitt doesn’t have the backing of his party on tribal issues, and that both groups are trying to remove Stitt from his role in negotiating with the tribes on behalf of the state.

As all of this plays out, an expansion of gaming will have to wait.


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