Given a chance to say so directly, the leaders of Oklahoma’s largest tribal nations are hesitant to claim they serve the needs of Oklahomans better than state government.
But that seems to be their public relations message.
The gaming revenue dispute with Gov. Kevin Stitt is based on legal arguments that most likely will be decided in court, but in the meantime a tribal coalition is waging an expensive public opinion campaign focused on its members’ track record for delivering everything from health care to roads to economic development.
Everything, in short, that might be expected of a state government — and that Oklahoma presumably will do more of if it succeeds in wrangling more gambling money from the tribes.
“Do we feel that we would serve the communities better than the state of Oklahoma? The proof’s in the pudding on how we’ve been able to serve the communities,” Seminole Chief Greg Chilcoat said during a visit to the Tulsa World last month.
Although sometimes couched as a struggle between an industry and the state over the appropriate level of taxation, the tribes argue that the dispute is really between two forms of government about how to divide a single revenue stream.
And there may be some who relish the idea of taking the tribes down a notch or two while taking a hunk out of the concept of tribal sovereignty.
Oklahoma’s tribes claim an economic impact on the state approaching $15 billion. They paid nearly $150 million in exclusivity fees during the fiscal year that ended June 30, which represents an increase of nearly 50 percent since 2009 and a record high for a fifth straight year.
The exclusivity fees, which guarantee the state will not legalize non-tribal gambling, range from 4 percent to 10 percent of gross gaming revenue — bets minus payouts for prizes — depending on the game and the size of a tribe’s operations. The fees are paid only on Class III gaming, otherwise known as Las Vegas-style gambling.
The tribes say their gaming proceeds go back into their communities and the state through payroll, education and social services and infrastructure.
Again, things on which the state will presumably spend any additional money it gets from the tribes.
“It’s just taking money from (a form of) local government and giving it to the state to send out to wherever,” said Choctaw Chief Gary Batton. “I’m not saying we’d do better than the state, but when I can walk out my front door and see my neighbor that needs help, that’s who you’re going to help.”
The tribal coalition, United for Oklahoma, has produced a series of more than two dozen videos, ranging from a few seconds to more than six minutes in length, many of which have saturated the state’s airwaves. There has also been an extensive print and internet campaign, including ads in the Tulsa World and on its web site.
The campaign features a long roster of community leaders, from former governors to small-town mayors, extolling the contributions of Oklahoma’s 38 federally recognized tribal governments.
“Some people say the tribes just take care of their own,” Tulsa Area United Way Chief Executive Officer Alison Anthony says in a video targeting a Tulsa audience. “I think nothing could be further from the truth. In our experience in Tulsa, our tribal communities are some of the most focused and committed community citizens.
“They’re taking care of their elderly, they’re building roads, they’re supporting tourism, I don’t know what else we could ask of them,” says Anthony.
While some of the ads touch on the legal issues involved, most make little or no mention of gaming or the compact dispute. One reason for that is that many of those in the United for Oklahoma ads, including Anthony, probably would not have participated in something overtly political or confrontational.
In an e-mail, Anthony said she was asked to participate in filmed interviews on the “value and impact” of tribal governments.
“I was not seeking to be part of a political debate and did not perceive speaking positively about the tribe’s positive impact in the state as speaking against anyone,” Anthony said in her email.
Mental Health Association Oklahoma Chief Executive Officer Mike Brose, who also appears in the Tulsa-themed video, said he agreed on the condition he not be asked politically sensitive questions.
“I can testify (the tribes) have definitely been helpful to us,” Brose said. “I genuinely believe they are value-added to our state.”
Brose and Anthony said they’ve been somewhat surprised by the ads but don’t think they were misled by United for Oklahoma or the Oklahoma City advertising firm that produced the videos.
“I get a lot of feedback but nothing negative,” Brose said. “A lot of people don’t make the connection” between the ads and the gaming dispute.
“My husband and children are Native American, and I was pleased to hear that our sovereign nations were working together to share more openly about work I had long seen happening quietly behind the scenes,” said Anthony. “I saw the communication effort as an opportunity that would help dispel myths and misperceptions about Native Americans as well.”
Who, exactly, is paying for the campaign is unclear. United for Oklahoma bills itself as a coalition of all gaming tribes, but their individual operations and tribal membership vary widely.
Just five tribes — Chickasaw, Choctaw, Cherokee, Muscogee Creek and Osage — account for more than three-fourths of Class III gaming revenue. One more tribe, the Quapaws, brings that up to around 80 percent.
The Chickasaws alone account for about one-third.
Just how effectively tribes are managing gaming revenue, individually and collectively, and how that compares to what the state might do, is difficult to gauge.
On one hand are complaints about such things as administrative salaries and the importance of family connections in tribal government. On another are the services afforded both tribal and non-tribal members and the tribes’ direct economic impact, which sometimes seems to stand in stark contrast to the state’s fumbling efforts at such things as health care reform and substance abuse treatment.
Chickasaw Gov. Bill Anoatubby, the senior statesman of not only Chickasaw and tribal government but one of the most influential figures in all of Oklahoma politics, says there are limits to gaming revenue and what it can do.
“There is only so much there,” he told the Tulsa World editorial board in November. “There would be a shift of dollars from our tribes to the state. And so what happens to the things we’re doing? We only have so much to do things with. It may be small, it may be large, but you can only do so much.”