Lawmakers Reject Gaming Compacts For Two Oklahoma Tribes

October 31, 2023
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Lawmakers have sided with Oklahoma Attorney General Gentner Drummond over Republican Governor Kevin Stitt in rejecting two new tribal gaming compacts, leaving both tribes with limited options to expand their gaming enterprises.
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Lawmakers have sided with Oklahoma Attorney General Gentner Drummond over Republican Governor Kevin Stitt in rejecting two new tribal gaming compacts, leaving both tribes with limited options to expand their gaming enterprises.

“I think the biggest outcome of the panel’s decision is that the status quo for Oklahoma remains for at least now,” said John Holden, associate professor with the Spears School of Business at Oklahoma State University.

Prior to last week’s hearing, attorney general Drummond told the legislature’s Joint Committee on State-Tribal Relations that the new compacts agreed in 2020 between Stitt and the Kialegee Tribal Town and the United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians were illegal.

The two agreements, which included provisions for sports betting along with other forms of casino gaming, were separate from the model compact between tribal nations and the state that became effective in 2004.

“Proper respect for the law compels the conclusion that the joint committee lacks the authority to make valid what the Oklahoma Supreme Court earlier declared to be invalid,” Drummond wrote in a four-page letter to the panel.  

In ruling against the governor, Drummond noted that the Supreme Court had held that Oklahoma law requires “the executive branch and the tribe to obtain the approval from the joint committee prior to submitting the compact” to the U.S. Department of the Interior for federal sign-off.

“The terms of these proposed compacts depart substantially from the codified Model Tribal Gaming Compact and, further, purport to make other significant departures from existing law.”

As such, Drummond wrote, the “governor effectively admits he is asking the Joint Committee to enact law.”

The Oklahoma Supreme Court ruled the standalone agreements were not valid because the governor had not followed the process required by state law.

On September 14, Stitt requested that the ten-member legislative committee “endorse” both compacts.

Trevor Pemberton, general counsel for the governor, disputed the attorney general’s claim that the committee lacks the authority to validate the compacts.

“The Supreme Court did not find the compacts to be forever invalid,” Pemberton testified on Wednesday (October 25). “Once they are approved by the joint committee they would be seen by the Supreme Court as valid under Oklahoma law.”

As for the sequencing issues, Pemberton said that state law does not mandate the sequence that has been advocated by the attorney general. The compacts were already submitted to the U.S. Department of the Interior and they were deemed approved.

Pemberton said the approval of the compacts was “an issue that is still being litigated” in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. Proponents of the new compacts said that receiving approval by the ten-member committee could end the federal lawsuit.

The lawsuit was filed by four tribes — the Cherokee, the Chickasaw, the Choctaw and the Citizen Potawatomi nations — who are challenging the compacts.

The four tribes argued in federal court that Stitt violated the law by not receiving approval from the Oklahoma legislature before signing the two compacts.

Stitt also signed new state-tribal compacts with the Comanche Nation and the Otoe-Missouria, but Pemberton told the joint committee that the state's Supreme Court may have very well invalidated those agreements because certain terms were so different from the model compact.

Drummond reminded lawmakers that the Oklahoma Supreme Court ruled in 2021 that the governor had exceeded his authority when he negotiated the compacts.

“Furthermore, both for the improper sequencing of government reviews and given their substantive inconsistencies with Oklahoma law, the joint committee should disapprove the tendered agreements and advise the governor that, if she wants to pursue their implementation, he should first seek appropriate revisions to Oklahoma law," he said.

Republican Representative Jon Echols, majority floor leader in the House, defended tribes’ rights to build and operate casinos on tribal lands but made it clear that his constituents were concerned about more casinos.

Echols asked if the United Keetoowah Band’s compact would authorize another casino to be placed in Oklahoma County, which includes Oklahoma City. 

Pemberton replied that it would.

The Kialegee Tribal Town’s compact would also allow for a new off-reservation casino. Currently, there are 130 casinos in Oklahoma.

After nearly an hour of discussion, the joint committee voted down the two compacts without even offering tribal leaders the opportunity to testify in support of the deals they signed with the governor.

Stitt negotiated the agreements as he was arguing with leaders of other federally-recognized tribes over the exclusivity rates the state receives from tribal gaming operations.

The animosity between Oklahoma tribes and the governor related to the economic stability of tribes has also continued to delay any in-depth negotiations to come to an agreement to legalize sports betting in the state.

Holden does not expect the situation to change anytime soon.

“I think the big question is whether sports betting is really worth it for the tribes to open up the compacts that are in place,” Holden said.

“In the two compacts that were rejected the impacted tribes would have been allowed casino properties in desirable areas which is a significant benefit, particularly to some of the smaller tribes, but sports betting on its own likely does not move the needle enough for most tribes.”

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