OKLAHOMA CITY — On the same day Oklahoma’s lead negotiator announced he had stepped down, the governor said it’s obvious the state won’t be able to reach a new gaming agreement with Native American tribes before Jan. 1.
Instead, Gov, Kevin Stitt proposed Tuesday that tribal leaders sign an extension to the compacts in order to give all sides more time to negotiate.
“One thing is abundantly clear from our negotiations is that the needs of the Oklahoma tribes are not united,” Stitt said at a press conference. “Contrary to what the TV commercials and some of the newspapers are reporting, the tribes are not united on this issue. The state cannot reach an agreement that reaches the needs of every single tribe in the state in the next 18 days. That’s obvious to me.”
And with just 18 days left before Jan. 1, Stitt said he’s notified Attorney General Mike Hunter it’s time for a unified approach in dealing with tribes. Stitt said he will take over all negotiations and is in the process of hiring an out-of-state law firm to represent the state.
Stitt also doubled down on his position that tribal casinos will be operating a subset of casino games illegally come Jan. 1 without an extension or new agreement.
“It’ll be very important that the tribal leaders join me in signing this extension out of the abundance of caution,” Stitt said. “We do not want gaming to be illegal, and we do not want vendors to be operating illegally.”
The voter-approved compacts allow tribes to offer gaming in exchange for paying the state exclusivity fees ranging from 4 to 10%. Those fees have generated more than $1.5 billion over the last 15 years, gaming officials report.
But Stitt believes the 15-year compacts expire Jan. 1. Tribal leaders disagree and believe they automatically renew Jan. 1.
Discussions over compact renewal and rates have remained largely at an impasse since Stitt said Native American leaders booted the state’s negotiators from an October meeting.
Stitt recently said he’s willing to renew for 15 more years, but he wants tribes to pay more for exclusivity rights. He also wants dispute resolution language added to compacts to clearly specify will happen 15 years from now.
Tribal leaders have said they’re open to re-negotiating, but Stitt must first acknowledge the compacts automatically renew.
In all, 35 federally recognized tribes currently have compacts with the state due for renewal. Those sovereign nations operate more than 130 facilities.
AG Hunter, meanwhile, gave no explanation for his sudden withdrawal in a two-sentence letter he sent Monday to Stitt.
“Pursuant to our recent conversations, I am withdrawing from further participation in the tribal gaming compact negotiations,” Hunter wrote in the letter obtained by CNHI Oklahoma through an open records request. “I look forward to and am committed to working with you in the future on any and all matters within my purview as chief legal officer of the State of Oklahoma.”
The attorney general and governor have agreed to return the tribal gaming compact negotiations to the Governor’s Office, said Alex Gerszewski, a spokesman for the Attorney General’s Office, in a statement Tuesday.
“This will allow the governor and his legal counsel to negotiate directly with tribes to hopefully develop a path forward,” he said.
Gerszewski declined to comment further, but Stitt later said Hunter supports his position that the compacts do not automatically renew.
“It has never been my understanding that the attorney general offered full-throated support for the positions that the governor has taken,” said Stephen Greetham, senior counsel with the Chickasaw Nation. “I’m reading between the lines with everyone else here, but I think it’s significant that the attorney general is parting ways with the governor. He’s the chief legal officer for the state of Oklahoma. If the chief legal officer does not support the governor in his legal position, then that’s significant.”
Among statewide candidates in Oklahoma, Hunter was the top recipient of tribal government donations during the 2017 and 2018 election cycle.
Greetham said if Stitt is going to turn to an outside law firm to represent the state’s interests, that should give all Oklahomans pause.
Other tribal leaders said they were disappointed Hunter had stepped aside.
“We find it disappointing that Oklahoma Attorney General Hunter has removed himself from continuing the negotiation process regarding tribal gaming compacts,” said Matthew Morgan, chairman of Oklahoma Indian Gaming Association, in a statement. “As we have stated from the beginning, the tribes are willing partners, and have appreciated Attorney General Hunter’s work with tribes on a variety of issues in the past.”
Morgan later said Tuesday’s press conference marked the first time tribal leaders had heard about Stitt’s extension plan.
He said it’s hard to comment on a document that hasn’t even been written, but tribes are open to all conversations.
Tribes still believe they don’t need an extension to operate after Jan. 1, Morgan added.
Morgan said he had hoped he would hear something that would lead to more productive conversations. Instead, Morgan said he continues to “be disappointed and troubled” by some of the language Stitt uses.
“I wish that he wouldn’t be the person that adds uncertainty into this discussion, especially for our workers,” he said. “I don’t see anyone else offering this uncertainty up except Gov. Stitt.”