OKLAHOMA CITY (KFOR) – As the deadline nears for the renegotiation of a gaming compact, state officials say they are changing their course.
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 is set to expire in January, Gov. Kevin Stitt recently sent a letter to 35 tribal leaders saying it is time to renegotiate the terms of the agreement.
Stitt says that since July, he has been working to renegotiate the compact but hasn't gotten any closer to a deal.
The tribes have contended the compact automatically renews if new agreements aren’t reached, but the governor disagrees.
“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.”
With just 18 days until the deadline, Gov. Kevin Stitt announced that he was changing course.
"The state cannot reach an agreement that meets the needs of every tribe within the next 18 days," Stitt said during a news conference on Tuesday.
Stitt said if an agreement wasn't reached, that Class III gaming would be illegal in Oklahoma on Jan. 1, 2020.
"I cannot put Oklahoma in this position," he said.
Stitt said that with Christmas just around the corner, he didn't want the workers and vendors who operate at casinos across the state to have their futures shrouded in uncertainty.
"I am announcing today that the State of Oklahoma will be requesting tribal leaders to join me to sign an extension to the gaming compact," Stitt said.
Stitt also said that he would be taking over the negotiations from Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter as a way to have one unified voice at the negotiation table.
"We do not want gaming to be illegal, and we do not want vendors to be operating illegally," Stitt said.
At this point, Stitt says that the gaming compact extension will give tribal and state leaders more time to agree to a compact. He says the exact length of the extension is not known.
Minutes after Stitt's news conference came to an end, tribal leaders called their own news conference.
"I don't see anyone else offering up this uncertainty besides Gov. Stitt," said Matthew Morgan, chairman of the Oklahoma Indian Gaming Association.
Morgan says before commenting on the compact extension, the tribal leaders would like to see the wording of the extension.
"That document is not written," Morgan said, adding that he can't comment on how tribal leaders feel about an extension that hasn't been sent to them yet.
Morgan stressed that even though Stitt says that gaming would become illegal on Jan. 1, the tribes are protected under the writing of the compact and will still be open.
"It'll be business as usual on January 1," Morgan said.