Oklahoma governor’s feud with Native American tribes continues over revenue agreements
Jul 21, 2023, 9:14 PM
(AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki, File)
OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt’s ongoing feud with many of the Native American tribes in the state has grown so contentious that fellow Republicans in the Legislature and the state’s attorney general are considering pushing him out of tribal negotiations altogether.
Those agreements, called compacts, have been worked out between the state and tribes over the last couple of decades to divvy up revenue from gambling, vehicle tags and the sale of tobacco and motor fuel on tribal land, all of which provide major revenue streams into state and tribal coffers.
Tribal casinos alone paid nearly $200 million to the state last year under agreements giving tribes the exclusive right to offer casino gambling.
State Republican leaders are grumbling publicly that Stitt’s hostile posture toward the tribes, including vetoing the extension of some compacts, are costing more than just money. They say it’s also eroding the relationship with tribal leaders that, although sometimes testy, has been nurtured for decades during Republican and Democratic administrations.
“Even (former) President Trump has mentioned he doesn’t know why the governor has such animosity toward the tribes,” said Senate President Pro Tempore Greg Treat, an Oklahoma City Republican. “It’s nonsensical.”
Stitt’s relationship with many tribal leaders has deteriorated since he unsuccessfully tried to rework gambling contracts by renegotiating the state’s share of casino revenue early in his first term. Many of the state’s most powerful tribes attempted to use their political influence last year to prevent Stitt from winning a second term.
This year, Stitt, himself a citizen of the Cherokee Nation, responded by vetoing virtually every legislative measure endorsed by the tribes, including a bill that would have allowed Native American students to wear tribal regalia at graduation ceremonies.
Stitt says he is trying to negotiate the best deal for all of the state’s more than 4 million residents, particularly when it comes to the tobacco compacts.
Stitt is concerned that unless the compacts are renegotiated, the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark McGirt decision on tribal sovereignty, which determined a large swathe of eastern Oklahoma remains a Native American reservation, could allow tribes to undercut non-tribal retailers across that area.
Under the current compacts, tribal tobacco sales are limited to retail locations on tribal trust land, but since the McGirt decision, courts have determined more than 40% of the state is now within the boundaries of historical reservations.
The feud between Stitt and the tribes has now spilled into the Republican-controlled Legislature, which is scheduled to meet in a special session Monday just to override Stitt’s vetoes of bills that would extend tribal compacts on tobacco and motor vehicles for another year.
Treat said he is willing to give the governor another year to negotiate with the tribes “in good faith,” but that if no progress is shown the Legislature could take over the right to negotiate the compacts. Although the governor’s office historically has handled compact negotiations with tribes, Treat said state law also authorizes the Legislature to do so.
Oklahoma’s Republican Attorney General Gentner Drummond also has been critical of Stitt’s posturing against the tribes and urged the Legislature to let him assume the defense of Oklahoma’s interest in an ongoing legal fight over gambling compacts involving the governor’s office and Cherokee Nation.
“Oklahoma’s relationship with our tribal nations has suffered greatly as a result of the governor’s divisive rhetoric and ceaseless legal attacks,” Drummond said.
Five of Oklahoma’s most powerful tribes — the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Muscogee (Creek) and Seminole nations — issued a joint resolution last week accusing the governor of not negotiating in good faith and threatening “to undo decades of work and damage tribal-state cooperation for generations to come.” Stitt disputes he is not negotiating in good faith.
Feuds between governors and Native American tribes are not unique to Oklahoma.
Republican legislative leaders in Arizona in 2020 threatened to prevent tribes from renewing gambling licenses, a critical funding source for many tribes, if they had unresolved disputes over water rights.
In Connecticut, during the height of the pandemic, the state’s governor engaged in a rare dispute with its two federally recognized tribes, the Mohegan Tribe and Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation, over the tribes’ decision to reopen their massive casinos.
But in Oklahoma, where the tribes are vitally important to the economy, particularly in depressed rural areas, even fellow Republicans are scratching their heads at Stitt’s continued hostility toward the tribes.
Treat described Stitt’s 2021 choice not to renew tribal compacts over hunting and fishing a “stupid decision” that has cost the state $35 million. Stitt’s office said at the time the compacts were unfair because tribal citizens could purchase licenses at a cheaper rate.
The number of licensed hunters and anglers in Oklahoma, which is used to calculate federal funds for wildlife conservation, has been reduced because many Native Americans have chosen to obtain licenses from the tribes, which no longer have an agreement to remit funds to the state.
The governor’s concerns about the fallout from the McGirt Supreme Court decision were heightened last month when a federal appeals court determined the city of Tulsa had no authority to issue a speeding ticket to a Choctaw citizen.
“Citizens of Tulsa, if your city government cannot enforce something as simple as a traffic violation, there will be no rule of law in eastern Oklahoma,” Stitt said.
Stitt’s argument about a cascading effect of the McGirt decision has merit. Already, thousands of Native American taxpayers in Oklahoma have claimed an exemption from paying state income tax under regulations governing taxation of tribal citizens in “Indian Country.”
An Okmulgee woman and Muscogee (Creek) citizen, Alicia Stroble, claims she is exempt from paying state income tax in a case pending before the Oklahoma Supreme Court. Several tribes have filed “friend of the court” briefs siding with Stroble’s position.
“It’s not going to work,” Stitt said. “We can’t have two different systems.”
While many tribal sovereignty issues remain unresolved following the McGirt decision, experts on tribal law say the solution can be found by working with the tribes rather than fighting them in court.
“There has to be a way for us to work together, and that tends to be the answer to almost all the questions,” said Sara Hill, attorney general for the Cherokee Nation. “The alternatives are always painful, expensive litigation.”
Associated Press reporters Felicia Fonseca in Arizona and Susan Haigh in Connecticut contributed to this report.