Gaming Compacts Are More Than A Legal Debate

by Taylor Bryant

OKLAHOMA CITY – The battle between Governor Kevin Stitt and Oklahoma’s tribal nations over gaming compacts has opened a new front line that has drawn in the Attorney General who is asking the federal government to reject two newly signed gaming compacts.

In his first year in office, Stitt announced his decision to renegotiate the gaming compacts which he believed expired at the start of the year.  He proposed an increase in the fees that tribes pay to manage their 130 casinos across the state of Oklahoma. 

The proposal has split support from Oklahomans and even among state Republicans.

Among the largest tribes in Oklahoma, the proposed renegotiation and increase in fees triggered legal challenges.  

While much media attention has been focused on the COVID-19 pandemic, the issue of the gaming compacts has fallen from the headlines. However, work on the compacts continued as the legal fights stalled due to the slowdown of the courts amid the pandemic.

An increase in fees from casinos could reshape the financial landscape of the state.  

“The governor makes the case that ultimately this is about education funding,” James Davenport, a political science profession at Rose State, said.  

According to The New York Times, the tribal nations paid upwards of $148 million in 2019, 88 percent of which was earmarked for public schools. 

“It’s going to be interesting to see if the public warms up to [the Governor’s] argument or not, Davenport said.  

To that end, Davenport sees the real battle playing out in the public arena possibly more so than in the courtroom.  

“You see the tribes pumping money into all sorts of advertising, promoting the contributions that they make to communities and to the state in a variety of ways. I think you’re going to see that, you know, the governor attempting to respond in some way. And so this is going to be, yeah, a very public battle, trying to convince voters especially of which side is correct.”

The tribes are not entirely united in the opposition to new gaming compacts.  The Comanche Nation and Otoe-Missoura Tribe both signed new gaming compacts with the state, which would potentially allow them to engage in sports betting and expand gaming operations.  

House and Senate leaders say the governor overstepped his authority in negotiating and signing the compacts.  The governor disagreed.

“As your letter correctly notes, ‘the Oklahoma Constitution vests the Governor with power to ‘conduct intercourse and business with the other states and the United States.’ Contrary to the position expressed in your letter, this constitutional authority vests solely in the Office of the Governor,’” the Governor said in a letter to legislative leaders.  

In response to the disagreement, House and Senate leaders asked for an opinion from Attorney General Mike Hunter. 

Hunter sent his legal opinion to the United States Secretary of the Interior whose office still has to approve the gaming compacts.

“Because the Governor lacks authority to “enter into” the agreements he has sent to you, those agreements fail to meet the requirements of [Indian Gaming Regulatory Act] to constitute a valid gaming compact under federal law. How a state enters into a gaming compact with a tribe, including whether the Governor may do so unilaterally in contravention of state statute, is a core concern of the state’s constitutional structure and is, therefore, a matter of state law.”

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