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Looking back at the top stories of 2019

Much has happened since 2019 began.

The state saw historic flooding. The governor and state tribes have gone back and forth on gaming compacts. The search for mass graves from the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre started again. USA BMX finally broke ground in Tulsa.

Here is a look back at some of the most important stories in 2019 in Oklahoma.

The 2019 floodFloodwaters, beginning in late May and finally receding in early June, ravaged hundreds of homes and businesses, resulting in more than 100 injuries and at least six deaths.

In mid-May, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers executed a planned release that was then touted as the largest amount of water that had run through the Keystone Dam in 26 years: 85,000 cubic feet of water per second. The amount increased the same day, May 13, and hovered around 100,000 cfs for four days before release amounts returned to normal

Then on May 20, inflows jumped from about 49,000 cfs to 200,000 cfs in five hours. At the time, releases were hovering around 60,000 cfs. Ever-increasing inflow and release rates ensued, and the highest inflow during the flood was recorded three days later near 317,000 cfs. The highest release rate was recorded near 277,000 cfs on May 29.

River flooding affected the whole state, especially areas along the Arkansas River from the Keystone Dam to the Arkansas-Oklahoma border.

Between 500 and 600 structures in Tulsa County took on water during the flooding along the Arkansas River and the streams that feed into it, according to figures compiled by Tulsa Area Emergency Management Agency. Residents of Sand Springs didn’t fare well, either, with about 115 structures flooding.

Another area with a significant number of flooded structures was Candlestick Beach, west of Sand Springs near Keystone Dam, where about 50 homes were flooded.

The city of Bixby reported that 40 to 50 structures took on water. Numerous homes in the Sperry, Skiatook and Turley area along Bird Creek were also flooded.

Muskogee County, in particular Webbers Falls and Fort Gibson, were hit especially hard.

Gov. Kevin Stitt and tribal leaders debate gaming compacts renewal Gov. Kevin Stitt proposed to renegotiate gaming compacts with the 35 tribes in Oklahoma who operate gaming. Stitt and tribal leaders, as of late December, were at an impasse on renewal of the gaming compacts, which last fiscal year generated nearly $150 million for the state.

Stitt believes the compacts expire Jan. 1 and that Class III gaming will be illegal without another agreement. The governor is seeking higher fees from the tribes in exchange for additional exclusivity in the gaming industry, which could include sports betting.

Tribes pay the state between 4% and 10% to operate Class III gaming, which includes slot machines, roulette and craps. The tribes do not pay fees on Class II gaming, which is electronic bingo. Tribes believe the compacts automatically renew, and they plan to continue operating normally on Jan. 1.

Search for 1921 Race Massacre mass graves resumedDeath certificates have been found for 37 people — 25 African American and 12 white — killed in the massacre, but most authorities think the actual number of deaths was higher. Stories have circulated since the day after the event of bodies being secretly disposed of by various means.

Mass graves, individual burial sites and combinations of the two have been described over the years. Mayor G.T. Bynum announced in late 2018 the revival of the search — which was previously attempted in 2000. The search began in earnest this year with searches of Oaklawn Cemetery, 1133 E. 11th St., and Newblock Park, 1414 Charles Page Blvd.

462 Oklahoma inmates released in largest commutation in historyIn early November, the Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board voted unanimously to recommend sentence commutations for 527 inmates. Supporters said it was the largest single-day commutation in state and national history.

A few days later, 462 inmates walked out of Oklahoma prisons.

‘Constitutional carry’ signed into lawIn February, Gov. Kevin Stitt signed into law a bill that permits individuals to carry firearms in the state without a permit or training. The law went into effect in November. The bill was the first law signed by Stitt after he took office.

Major drug companies taken to trial for their roles in opioid crisisOklahoma’s attorney general took major pharmaceutical companies to court for their roles in the nation’s deadly opioid crisis.

The maker of OxyContin, Purdue Pharma, and the family that owns the company reached a $270 million settlement with the state of Oklahoma. The money went toward establishing the National Center for Addiction Studies and Treatment at Oklahoma State University in Tulsa.

In August, a state judge rendered a $465 million verdict against opioid manufacturer Johnson & Johnson and its subsidiaries, ruling that the company’s misleading marketing and distribution of opioid painkillers triggered a deadly crisis in Oklahoma.

Johnson & Johnson is appealing to the Oklahoma Supreme Court, claiming the nonjury verdict is excessive.

TPS handling $20 million budget deficitTulsa Public Schools officials announced a $20 million deficit loomed for its budget for the 2020-21 school year. Declining enrollment and a persisting financial shortfall were cited as the causes.

TPS has slashed $22 million since 2015 and dipped into its fund balance last year for the first time in a decade to avoid a negative balance. The fund balance is on track to run out by next year, giving way to the projected shortfall. State education funding has continued to lag since 2008. The historic funding increase included in the recent state budget was not enough to offset extensive budget cuts from the past decade.

Student enrollment at TPS has declined by about 5,000 students during that time, resulting in lower state funding. Enrollment helps determine the district’s share of the state aid funding formula.

Tulsa breaks ground on long-awaited USA BMX facilityIt happened in mid-November.

After years of fits and starts that left many wondering whether USA BMX would ever relocate to Tulsa, people gathered at the Evans-Fintube property north of downtown for a groundbreaking to celebrate the construction of the USA BMX headquarters building and a Hall of Fame museum.

The BMX facilities will be constructed on the north end of the 22-acre property. They are expected to include a 2,000-seat outdoor arena with a roof, an adjacent USA BMX headquarters and hall of fame, and an approximately 300-space parking lot.

The project is scheduled to be completed in 2021.

James L. Gallogly resigns

as OU presidentUniversity of Oklahoma President James L. Gallogly announced his resignation in mid-May.

Gallogly had been in office less than a year, which was marked by periods of controversy and upheaval. He resigned as president just a day after the university finished with its 2019 commencement ceremonies.

In his 10 months as university president, OU has been through an investigation into former President David Boren, numerous on-campus incidents and budget upheaval.

Medical marijuana rakes in more than $34 million in taxesMedical marijuana generated more than $34.5 million in tax revenue through the end of September. Patient licenses exceeded 200,000, far above the initial projections of 80,000 in the first year, according to the Oklahoma Medical Marijuana Authority.

Oklahoma coaching legends Allan Trimble and Nate Harris dieAllan Trimble, who won more OSSAA state high school football championships in 22 seasons at Jenks than any head coach in Oklahoma history, died Dec. 1. He was 56.

Since 2016, Trimble has been battling ALS, or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis — also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease. Trimble is survived by his wife, Courtney, and his two daughters, Tylar Isenberg and Tori Trimble.

In April 2018, Trimble retired as head coach and director of football almost two years after he was diagnosed with ALS. Trimble was succeeded by longtime assistant Keith Riggs.

Nathan E. “Nate” Harris, who coached Booker T. Washington High School to its greatest basketball successes of the past 70 years, died on April 30.

Harris guided Booker T. Washington to 10 state basketball championships, two state runner-up finishes and 23 state tournament appearances over 25 seasons (1982-2002). Only Oklahoma City Millwood’s Varryl Franklin coached more teams to Oklahoma state championships. He had 13.

Harris is survived by his wife, Sandra, and three sons, Eric, Nathan III and Nicholas.

Tulsan Joy Harjo named

U.S. Poet LaureateJoy Harjo, a Tulsa native and citizen of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, was the first Native American and first Oklahoman to be selected as the nation’s Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress.

Harjo is the author of eight books of poetry, including “Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings,” “The Woman Who Fell From the Sky,” which received the Oklahoma Book Arts Award; and “In Mad Love and War,” which received an American Book Award and the Delmore Schwartz Memorial Award.

She is the author of an acclaimed memoir, “Crazy Brave,” and is in the process of editing a major anthology of Native poets.

Library of Congress officials announced in June that Harjo was named the 23rd poet laureate of the United States. Harjo succeeded Tracy K. Smith, who served two terms as poet laureate.

‘Killers of the Flower Moon’

will be filmed in Osage CountyTribal officials and movie makers confirmed in July that “Killers of the Flower Moon” will be filmed in Osage County.

“Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI” is about the murder of Osage tribal members in the 1920s after the discovery of oil on their land made them wealthy. Martin Scorsese is directing and Robert DeNiro and Leonardo DiCaprio are on the project.

American Airlines adds 400 jobs

to northeast OklahomaAmerican Airlines announced in August that it is carving out an even bigger presence, adding 400 jobs to the airline’s maintenance facility.

Additional maintenance work — including scheduled maintenance on the Boeing 787 fleet — necessitated the new positions at Tech Ops Tulsa, which already employs 5,200. Hiring, primarily for Federal Aviation Administration-licensed mechanics, will continue over the next four months, said Erik Olund, managing director of base maintenance for American.


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With governor's deadline approaching, next move in tribal gaming battle unclear

The stroke of midnight Jan. 1 marks a new year, a new decade and — maybe — a new era in the state’s thriving tribal gaming industry.

As recently as Friday, Gov. Kevin Stitt reiterated his position that the compacts allowing Class III gaming in Oklahoma tribal casinos expire at the end of the year.

The state’s 31 gaming tribes, meanwhile, remained adamant that the compacts self-renew.

“There is no uncertainty about continuing our gaming operations on Jan. 1, 2020,” Cherokee Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. said in a written statement. “Gov. Stitt has no authority under the compact or any other law to close a tribal business, remove any games from tribal casinos or require a game to be turned off.”

Through a spokeswoman, the Muscogee (Creek) Nation said it plans business as usual at its River Spirit Casino in Tulsa and its eight other gaming facilities.

In fact, no tribe has indicated it intends to change operations after Jan. 1.

When asked in an email whether the state will try to shut down Class III games on or after Jan. 1, Stitt spokeswoman Baylee Lakey replied, “The Governor’s door remains open to resolving the uncertainty that exists with the clear Jan. 1, 2020 expiration in the gaming compacts.”

Stitt wants to renegotiate the compacts in an attempt to extract more money for the state. It received almost $150 million in direct payments from tribal gaming last fiscal year.

Speculation has been rampant about what the Stitt administration might do to try to hamper casino operations on or after Wednesday, but one obvious drawback of doing so is that it would curtail or cut off those payments at a time when other revenue growth is slowing.

For now, the next known step is a state audit, ordered by Stitt to begin Thursday, of the Chickasaw Nation’s gaming operations.

As Hoskin mentioned, the tribes say there is no uncertainty about the compact’s status. In a letter to the governor last week, 32 tribal leaders accused Stitt of trying to intimidate their suppliers and called “offensive to our employees” an earlier suggestion the casinos will be operating illegally after Jan. 1.

The dispute seems to revolve around a single paragraph in the 28-page model compact approved by Oklahoma voters and individually adopted by each tribe in 2004-5.

The paragraph in question begins by saying the compact expires on Jan. 1, 2020, but then says it will “automatically renew” for 15-year terms “if organization licensees or others are authorized to conduct electronic gaming in any form other than pari-mutuel wagering on live horse racing ...”

The tribes argue that automatic renewal was triggered when the state allowed non-tribal Class III slot machines at Oklahoma City’s Remington Park.

Those machines were part of the original tribal gaming negotiations and have been at the track since 2005. The tribes say the Oklahoma Horse Racing Commission’s renewal of Remington Park’s license in October closed the last possible loophole that could have prevented automatic renewal.

Global Gaming Solutions, which is owned by the Chickasaw Nation, bought Remington Park out of bankruptcy in 2010. The track and casino, however, are operated as a commercial enterprise, not a tribal gaming facility.

As recently as last week, the tribes have said they are willing to discuss the compacts’ financial terms — which is also provided for in the disputed paragraph — but only if Stitt acknowledges the agreements as a whole automatically renew.

Tribal gaming 101: What you need to know about tribal gaming in Oklahoma

Tribal gaming 101: What you need to know about Oklahoma tribal gaming

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