The Chickasaw Nation operates nearly two dozen casinos, including its flagship WinStar World Casino and Resort, the official casino sponsor of the Dallas Cowboys.
Oklahoma Tribes are holding their ground in the ongoing standoff with the state over Tribal gaming compacts. They will not discuss renegotiating rates until Gov. Kevin Stitt acknowledges the automatic renewal of their compacts on January 1.
The Tribes’ resolve is anchored by a legal opinion, written by former U.S. Solicitor General Seth P. Waxman, who said the governor’s position is not defensible and that the compacts automatically renew. Waxman, considered to be among the country’s premier Supreme Court and appellate advocates, is a partner at Washington, D.C.-based law firm WilmerHale, on retainer by the Chickasaw Nation, Choctaw Nation and Cherokee Nation.
Chickasaw Nation Gov. Bill Anoatubby has initiated communication with the U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI), forewarning that a “formal dispute may be imminent.”
“We reserve our right to take legal action, if necessary, to protect the Chickasaw Nation’s legal and sovereign rights as well as the material interests of our citizens who rely on government programs and services supported by our gaming operation revenues,” Anoatubby wrote.
He added that a disruption in Tribal government gaming operations “would present an intolerable risk of injury to the Chickasaw Nation and its citizens.”
Gov. Stitt’s administration has also contacted the DOI, Donelle Harder, a Stitt senior adviser and spokeswoman told the Associated Press on Wednesday. “We have sought their guidance on what role the federal agency would play if an agreement is not met by Dec. 31,” she said. “It doesn’t surprise us that the law firm the Tribes retained would share their position.”
Oklahoma Tribes maintain that their gaming compacts automatically renew for another 15-year term on January 1, if the state and Tribes are unable to reach a new agreement.
The deadlock between the Tribes and states reached a fever pitch Thursday when Gov. Stitt charged that any Class III gaming facilities open in Oklahoma on January 1 or after would be operating illegally.
“The truth is on our side,” said Stitt, reported the Tulsa World. “I feel so confident that Oklahomans can see right through a certain industry, the casino industry, saying, ‘These go on forever.’ That can’t be true.”
“Are they going to be operating illegally Class III games?” Stitt asked. “That brings a whole host of issues with vendors.”
For months, Stitt has argued that Oklahoma Tribes should pay more for the exclusive right to operate Class III games in the state. The current rate of between 4-10% of Tribal gambling revenue should be on par with other states, he has held.
In his July op-ed for the Tulsa World — his first form of communication about his stance — Gov. Stitt stated that Tribes in other states pay closer to 20-25 percent. That’s not actually the case for Tribally owned casinos. Fees in New Mexico hover between 2-10%; in Arizona, between 1-8%; and in neighboring Arkansas — home to at least one commercial casino owned and operated by a Tribe, and potentially more — fees will range from 13 to 20%.
This summer, the Inter-Tribal Council of the Five Civilized Tribes (ITC) responded to Gov. Stitt’s op-ed by sending a unified and firm message of their collective intent to reject any attempt by the state to unlawfully and unilaterally terminate their compacts.
Most recently, Stephen Greetham, senior counsel for the Chickasaw Nation, told the Tulsa World:
“The fact is our compacts renew and that our gaming will be as lawful in January 2020 as it is in December 2019. Governor Stitt’s position is not supported by law, logic or the compact’s plain language.
“Those are terms the state offered to us 15 years ago, and it is beyond untenable for it to arbitrarily and at the 11th hour suddenly say it didn’t mean what it said. Oklahoma is better than that, and the state-tribal relationship deserves better than that.”
Tribes in Oklahoma have paid more than $1.5 billion in exclusivity fees to the state since 2006. More than $1.3 billion has been earmarked for public education. In 2017 alone, $198 million was paid to support Oklahoma education, according to a recent economic impact study.
Overall, the 38 federally recognized Tribes in Oklahoma had a $12.9 billion impact on the state in 2017, directly employing more than 50,000 people and supporting a total of 96,000 jobs to Tribal citizens and non-citizens, accounting for more than $4.6 billion in wages and benefits to Oklahoma workers that year. Gaming was a leading economic driver making this possible.