Tribal leaders file federal lawsuit to end uncertainty about tribal gaming compact

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OKLAHOMA CITY (KFOR) – In a surprising twist, several Native American nations have filed a federal lawsuit regarding the state’s tribal gaming compact.

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 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.”

The Nations provided a legal opinion from former Solicitor General of the United States Seth Waxman, which said, “The renewal provision in the Tribes’ gaming compacts with Oklahoma is not ambiguous. Under that provision’s plain language, the compacts will renew automatically when they expire on January 1, because the provision’s sole condition precedent for automatic renewal is unquestionably satisfied. Each of the contrary arguments I have seen to date simply cannot be squared with fundamental principles of contract interpretation.”

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 earlier this month.

Now, tribal leaders say they are taking the disagreement to a higher court to get a decision once and for all on the matter.

On Tuesday, officials announced that 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.”

The lawsuit seeks 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.

“Rather than respectfully engage with the Tribes and seek an amicable resolution, Governor Stitt has continued to insist on our compact’s termination,” Seminole Nation Chief Greg Chilcoat said. “While his position is completely at odds with our compact’s language, he has succeeded in causing uncertainty that has an economic consequence. His inconsistent approach has been unfortunate and unnecessary.”

“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.

“The Cherokee Nation is committed to being a good partner in our community and with the State of Oklahoma as we have done across two centuries and will continue to do as a peaceful, sovereign nation. Governor Stitt has made comments about “uncertainty that exists” regarding Class III gaming after January 1, threats to our casino vendors and their livelihoods and demands for redundant audits. We have little choice but to ask a Federal judge to confirm the compact’s automatic renewal on Jan. 1,” said Cherokee Nation Chief Chuck Hoskin, Jr.

Tribal leaders have said they plan to continue operating their casinos like normal, even if a new agreement isn’t signed before the deadline.

“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 today after learning of the suit.

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