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OKLAHOMA CITY (KFOR) – After months of disagreements between Native American tribal leaders and Oklahoma Governor Kevin Stitt regarding the renewal of tribal gaming compacts, a federal court has issued a ruling on the matter.

Currently, Native American tribes pay Oklahoma more than $140 million a year in gaming exclusivity fees from casinos. However, some state leaders say it is time for that to change.

Oklahoma tribes earn $4.5 billion each year thanks to casino-style gaming. Of that money, anywhere from 4 to 10 percent goes back to the state in exclusivity fees.

Since the 15-year deal between the state and the tribes was set to expire in January, Gov. Kevin Stitt sent a letter to 35 tribal leaders saying it is time to renegotiate the terms of the agreement

However, the tribes have contended the compact automatically renews if new agreements aren’t reached.

“Unlike contracts, compacts are solemn agreements between two sovereigns that remain in force until both parties agree otherwise,” said Chickasaw Governor Bill Anoatubby. “Former Solicitor General Seth Waxman issued a powerful legal opinion that reinforces our confidence that the compacts automatically renew on January 1. The State of Oklahoma listed certain conditions for automatic renewal in the compact they offered to the Tribes. That compact was accepted by the Tribes and approved by the federal government. We have honored the terms of the compact and intend to continue operating under that renewing agreement, and we expect the State to do the same.”

The compact’s Part 15 B. states, “This Compact shall have a term which will expire on January 1, 2020, and at that time, if organization licensees or others are authorized to conduct electronic gaming in any form other than pari-mutuel wagering on live horse racing pursuant to any governmental action of the state or court order following the effective date of this Compact, the Compact shall automatically renew for successive additional fifteen-year terms.”

On the other hand,  Gov. Stitt has said that if an agreement wasn’t reached by Jan. 1, that Class III gaming would be illegal in Oklahoma. When negotiations stalled, Stitt said that the only solution would be for the tribes to sign an extension for the compact.

Otherwise, he said that the lack of progress could affect the jobs of employees and vendors at casinos around the state.

“We do not want gaming to be illegal, and we do not want vendors to be operating illegally,” Stitt said in December.

Tribal leaders say they decided to take the disagreement to a higher court to get a decision once and for all on the matter.

The Cherokee, Chickasaw, and Choctaw Nations filed a federal lawsuit “to bring an end to the uncertainty Oklahoma Governor J. Kevin Stitt has attempted to cast over Tribal gaming operations.” They were later joined by the Citizen Potawatomie Nation, the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, Quapaw Nation, Delaware Nation, Seminole Nation, and the Wichita and Affiliated Tribes.

The lawsuit sought a judicial declaration that the gaming compacts renew.

Tribal leaders say that Stitt’s argument that Class III gaming would be illegal in Oklahoma has caused vendors to express concerns about the future. They say they had no other choice than to take the case to a higher court.

“The Governor’s stance on the gaming compact has created uncertainty and has been seen as a threat to our employees and our business partners. We see this legal action as the most viable option to restore the clarity and stability the Tribes and Oklahoma both deserve by obtaining a resolution that our compact does automatically renew. As elected leaders, it is our responsibility to uphold the compact, honor the will of the Oklahomans who approved State Question 712 and the Federal law that defines our relationship with the State on these matters,” said Choctaw Nation Chief Gary Batton.

“I am disappointed that a number of Oklahoma tribes, led by the Chickasaw, Cherokee, and Choctaw Nations, did not accept the State’s offer on Oct. 28 for a three-person arbitration panel to resolve our dispute outside of court. This was a capstone action to their numerous refusals to meet with State and begin negotiations on the Model Gaming Compact to ensure a win-win for all parties by the end of this year. I was elected to represent all 4 million Oklahomans, and I will continue to be laser-focused on an outcome that achieves a fair deal and is in the best interest of the state and its citizens,” said Stitt after learning of the suit in December.

Image by Bruno /Germany from Pixabay
Image by Bruno /Germany from Pixabay

Months after the lawsuit was filed, the United States District Court for the Western District of Oklahoma released its decision on Tuesday.

In the decision, the court agrees with the tribes that the gaming compacts automatically renew, saying it rejected the state’s argument.

“For these reasons, the Court finds that Plaintiffs’ and Intervenors’ Compacts with the State of Oklahoma automatically renewed for an additional 15-year term on January 1, 2020, by operation of the unambiguous terms of Part 15(B),” the ruling stated.

So far, the governor has not responded to the ruling.

“The Choctaw Nation is pleased with today’s ruling. This is a great day! This is a strong affirmation of what we have known all along. The plain language of the compact stated that it renewed on January 1, 2020. We are grateful this issue has been resolved and are ready to put it behind us. We look forward to continuing to serve our tribal members by providing health care, education and jobs in the communities where we live and work.”

Chief Gary Batton, Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma