Two tribes respond to attorney general’s opinion on gaming compacts

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OKLAHOMA CITY (KFOR) – Two Native American tribes are speaking out, emphasizing the legality of their individual gaming compacts with the state.

Last month, Gov. Stitt announced that the state had reached new deals with the Otoe-Missouria and Comanche tribes. The compacts call for lower exclusivity fees, and allow sports betting and new casinos closer to larger cities.

Immediately, tribal attorneys were split over the legality of the compacts. Since sports betting is not legal in Oklahoma, they say it cannot be used as a bargaining chip without being passed by the Legislature.

“Tribes can do what is legal in the state so if those games aren’t legal in the state, that poses a threshold problem,” said Kirke Kickingbird, tribal law attorney.

Lawmakers at the Oklahoma State Capitol also expressed concerns about the legality of the move.

In late April, Stitt told lawmakers that he received “numerous, exceptional legal opinions throughout this process” regarding the legal status of the compacts.

However, Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter said the governor lacks the authority to enter into and bind the state to compacts with Native American tribes that authorize gaming activities that are prohibited by state law.

In addition to the opinion, Hunter sent a letter to Secretary of the Interior David Berhardt, where Hunter asked him to reject the agreements because they are not authorized by the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act.

“Because the Governor lacks authority to ‘enter into’ the agreements he has sent to you, those agreements fail to meet the requirements of IGRA to constitute a valid gaming compact under federal law,” Attorney General Hunter writes. “How a state enters into a gaming compact with a tribe, including whether the Governor may do so unilaterally in contravention of state statute, is a core concern of the state’s constitutional structure and is therefore a matter of state law.”

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

On Wednesday, the Comanche Nation and Otoe-Missouria Tribe released a legal memo that was sent to Bernhardt.

In the letter, both tribal chairmen say they strongly believe their compacts are legal and in the best interest of their people.

“While we respect Attorney General Hunter, his grievances with our compact are not well-founded, as our agreements comply entirely with federal and state laws,” said Comanche Nation Chairman William Nelson, Sr. “We negotiated these legal compacts in good-faith with the state and they should be approved. They reflect a significant modernization in tribal gaming and will bring new jobs and more revenue to our local communities and the state.”

In the memo, the tribes say they believe the governor has the authority to enter into compacts on behalf of the state, and also say that compacts under the IGRA can address forms of gaming that are not currently allowed under state law.

“It is entirely appropriate for a compact to include provisions regarding forms of gaming that are not yet legal (but may be in the future)…” the memo reads. “Ultimately, the compacts merely address new forms of gaming that were not part of the prior compacts and that would be innovative in the state—a practice that the Department has long approved.”

The tribes also stress that the compacts are consistent with state law.

Under the compacts, the tribes say that sports betting can only be conducted “to the extent such wagers are authorized by law.”

“There is no requirement under state or federal law that says every tribe must operate under a universal model compact, and in fact it goes directly against our tribal sovereignty to imply one compact would be best for all tribes,” said Otoe-Missouria Tribe Chairman John R. Shotton. “As individual, sovereign nations, every tribe in the state has the same prerogative to do what is best for its members, as we did for ours. If the Department were to disapprove these compacts, it would strongly discourage the practice of exercising tribal sovereignty in the future, which would be detrimental to all tribes in our state and set a dangerous precedent nationally.”

The U.S. Department of the Interior has 45 days to review and approve the compacts and is expected to make a ruling on or before June 8.

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