State of the State

Gov. Kevin Stitt addresses a joint session of the Oklahoma Legislature on Monday to open the latest legislative session. STEPHEN PINGRY/Tulsa World

OKLAHOMA CITY — The sizeable contingent of Oklahoma’s tribal leadership attending Monday’s State of the State address sat in stony silence Monday as Gov. Kevin Stitt used the occasion to assert his authority over their gaming operations and suggest that any disruption in education funding caused by his dispute with the tribes will be their fault.

“As governor, I remain supportive of the sovereignty of the state of Oklahoma and our right — and your duty as the Legislature — to oversee all industries operating in the state,” Stitt said after accusing the tribes of refusing to renegotiate their gaming compacts.

This was a direct slap at the men and women seated in the gallery to his right. By asserting the state’s sovereign rights, he tread none too lightly on the tribes’.

“I think it’s a breathtaking misunderstanding of tribal sovereignty,” said Cherokee Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr.

“If (Stitt) would drop this phony deadline, stop saying we’re illegal and make a proposal, we would be willing to negotiate,” he said.

The dispute began last summer when Stitt informed the tribes, in part through an op-ed in the Tulsa World, that in his opinion the compacts each of them with gaming facilities signed with the state in 2004 would expire at the end of 2019.

The tribes disagreed but said they were willing to negotiate certain components of the compacts, including the amount they pay the state each year in exclusivity fees. Those fees go directly into a designated fund for common education and last year amounted to almost $150 million.

On Dec. 31, the three largest tribes — the Chickasaw, Choctaw and Cherokee — sued Stitt in federal district court, asking it to resolve the dispute over the compacts’ expiration and to order Stitt to stop interfering in their business.

Two other tribes, the Citizen Potawatomi and the Muscogee (Creek), have since asked to join the lawsuit.

In his response, Stitt asked the court to close Class III gaming at the state’s 131 tribal casinos.

The situation has raised the question of what happens to the exclusivity fees in the meantime. The tribes say they’re still paying them. Monday, Stitt said he’s asking the Legislature to set aside carryover funds to cover any disruption.

Stitt was not specific Monday in his demands of the tribes but in the past has called for everything from drastically higher exclusivity fees to oversight of the tribes’ agreements with vendors.

“It is unfortunate to see Gov. Stitt tie himself and the state budget in knots as he continues his refusal to acknowledge the plain terms of the agreement the state offered the tribes 15 years ago,” said Matthew Morgan, chairman of the Oklahoma Indian Gaming Association.

Democratic lawmakers also remained silent after Stitt’s comments regarding the tribes, and even the Republican response appeared lukewarm.

“We’re offended by the governor completely minimizing what the tribal governments mean to the state of Oklahoma,” said House Minority Leader Emily Virgin, D-Norman. “If there were room to negotiate, I’m afraid he squandered it today.”

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

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Randy Krehbiel 918-581-8365

Twitter: @rkrehbiel

Randy has been with the Tulsa World since 1979. He is a native of Hinton, Okla., and graduate of Oklahoma State University. Krehbiel primarily covers government and politics. Phone: 918-581-8365

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