Gov. Kevin Stitt and Attorney General Mike Hunter tangled Tuesday over tribal gaming compacts, signed in an elaborate ceremony earlier in the day, that authorize the Comanche and Otoe-Missouria tribal governments to begin sports betting and banked table games such as true blackjack.
Stitt hailed the agreements as a breakthrough in tribal gaming negotiations, but Hunter said the governor exceeded his powers.
“The agreements signed today … are not authorized by the state Tribal Gaming Act,” Hunter said in a written statement Tuesday evening.
“The governor has the authority to negotiate compacts with the tribes on behalf of the state. However, only gaming activities authorized by the act may be the subject of a tribal gaming compact. Sports betting is not a prescribed ‘covered game’ under the act.”
Stitt said in a statement that “these new gaming compacts are in the best interest of the State, members of the Otoe-Missouria tribe and Comanche Nation and the local communities where these tribes reside and operate.”
“The new compacts recognize the sovereign rights of individual tribes to conduct gaming in Oklahoma,” he continued. “The compacts take a sound approach to assessing the value of substantial exclusivity in a modernized tribal gaming industry, and importantly, the compacts expand opportunity for both the compacting tribes and the State to compete in future gaming markets.”
Stitt and later Phillip Whaley, a private attorney representing the state on tribal matters, said they believe that the governor acted within his authority.
“I suppose everyone can have their own interpretation or belief,” Whaley said prior to the issuance of Hunter’s statement. “The state feels that there is an adequate, sufficient basis in law for the governor to have that authority.”
Stitt and Hunter have been at odds on several matters over the past 16 months. Last fall, Stitt abruptly replaced Hunter as the state’s representative in the gaming negotiations.
While Stitt has talked often of negotiating higher exclusivity fee rates — the state’s portion of Indian gaming revenue — the compacts signed Tuesday actually lower the rates being paid by the Otoe-Missouria and Comanche tribes.
Besides permitting on-site sports betting and banked card games such as blackjack, the compact preapproves up to three new casinos for each tribe outside their old reservation boundaries. The state’s share of the take would increase if one or more of those casinos is built.
Importantly for Stitt, the Otoe-Missouria and Comanche deals meet his ambition of writing completely new compacts instead of renegotiating existing ones. They include several oversight measures and clarify some existing ones.
Arizona attorney Rob Rosette, representing both tribes, said the new pacts are “much, much better” than current arrangements.
“Why would these tribes stay in court fighting for a compact they don’t want any more?” Rosette said during a teleconference.
Nevertheless, Rosette said his clients’ decision to sign new compacts does not mean they disagree with the premise of a lawsuit challenging Stitts’ assertion that the existing compacts expired on Dec. 31.
That lawsuit involves some of the state’s largest gaming tribes, including the Chickasaws, Cherokees and Creeks. Now in mediation, further activity on that front has been delayed until at least late May because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Gov. Stitt does not have the authority to do what he claims to have done today,” Matthew Morgan, president of the Oklahoma Indian Gaming Association, said. “Without the engagement of the Oklahoma Legislature, he has entered agreements based on a claim of unilateral state authority to legalize sports books, to revamp the Oklahoma Lottery, and to authorize new gaming facilities in Norman and Stillwater, among other places. That’s simply not the law.
“I expect tribal and state officials are now reviewing the documents he released … and trying to understand what exactly it is Gov. Stitt is trying to do. But at the end of the day, I suspect his actions have not helped matters for anyone,” Morgan said.
The Comanche compact is particularly interesting because it would allow the tribe to build three casinos in Chickasaw territory, including one in Cleveland County south of Oklahoma City and one in Love County along the Red River.
The Comanches were upset several years ago when the Chickasaws won federal approval to build a casino at Comanche, near the Comanche Nation’s headquarters in Lawton.
The Comanches currently operate casinos in Lawton, Devol, Elgin and Walters.
The Otoe-Missouria, headquartered in Red Rock, have five casinos in north central Oklahoma but generate roughly half the revenue of the Comanches’ four.
In any event, the compacts and their provisions are still a long way from an effective date. They would have to be approved by the Department of the Interior and, as Hunter indicated, likely face legal and political opposition.
Speaking at a signing ceremony accompanied by tribal ritual, Otoe-Missouria Chairman John Shotton and Comanche Chairman William Nelson Sr. reiterated their belief that their former compact had automatically renewed at the end of 2019 and that their tribal sovereignty remains intact.
“This Otoe-Missouria Tribal Council is excited about the signing of a new Class III Gaming Compact with the state of Oklahoma,” said Shotton. “At a time when so much is uncertain in our tribal government due to the COVID-19 situation, we have negotiated a new compact that provides stability for the Otoe-Missouria Tribe’s future in gaming for our tribe, employees, patrons, vendors and our banking partners when things return to normal and we are able to open our casinos again.
“The new Otoe-Missouria compact provides a lower rate than we are currently paying,” Shotton said. “The term is not limited to 15 years. It also allows for house banked card and table games. Sports book will be available. There are opportunities for expanded gaming in the future.”
Barbara Hoberock contributed to this story.