Tribal sovereignty among the top issues facing Oklahoma governor and Legislature

Feb 4, 2024, 9:01 PM

FILE - Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt answers a question while taking part in a panel discussion during ...

FILE - Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt answers a question while taking part in a panel discussion during a Republican Governors Association conference, Nov. 16, 2022, in Orlando, Fla. Tribal sovereignty is expected to again be a top issue facing lawmakers and Stitt as they return, Monday, Feb. 5 to begin the 2024 legislative session. (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack, File)

(AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack, File)

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — Tribal sovereignty is expected to again be a top issue facing Oklahoma lawmakers and Gov. Kevin Stitt as they returned on Monday to begin the 2024 legislative session.

Stitt, a Republican and himself a citizen of the Cherokee Nation, has had a contentious relationship with tribal leaders that began with a dispute during his first year in office over casino revenue and has worsened with conflict over agreements on tobacco sales, motor vehicle tags, taxes and criminal jurisdiction.

In his State of the State address to lawmakers on Monday, Stitt once again took aim at expanded tribal sovereignty and the landmark 2020 U.S. Supreme Court decision on criminal jurisdiction, dubbed McGirt after the plaintiff in the case, that much of eastern Oklahoma remained a tribal reservation.

“Three years after McGirt, we are still operating under a confusing and conflicting patchwork of jurisdiction across our state,” Stitt said.

Stitt also said confusion remains in Oklahoma over whether tribal citizens on reservations must pay income taxes or can be cited by police for traffic violations.

“We can’t be a state that operates with two different sets of rules,” Stitt said. “Especially based on race.”

Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin, a frequent critic of Stitt and one of many tribal leaders in the gallery for the governor’s speech, bristled at Stitt’s suggestion that race is a factor in tribal relations.

“That’s either a very cynical, purposeful, strategic employment of rhetoric, or it’s born of complete ignorance, because we’re not talking about race,” Hoskin said. “We’re talking about sovereign nations. And if he doesn’t get it at this point, I’m starting to doubt that he will.”

Hoskin also downplayed Stitt’s contention that there is widespread confusion over criminal jurisdiction.

“The picture he’s painted of confusion, we don’t see it,” Hoskin said. “We see cooperation every day.”

Last year the Legislature convened in special session to override the governor’s veto of a bill to extend agreements on tribal tobacco sales and motor vehicle tags, and the issue is expected to surface again this year.

Many lawmakers hope the relationship between the tribes and Stitt has thawed somewhat following a deal the governor reached last month with the Chickasaw Nation for a 10-year agreement on tobacco and car tags. Similar deals have been signed with the Apache, Potawatomie and Wyandotte tribes.

“I see it as a very good indication that the state and the tribes will be able to work together,” said Sen. Brent Howard, chairman of the Joint Committee on State-Tribal relations.

Stitt isn’t the only GOP governor whose relationship with tribal leaders has been contentious. A South Dakota tribe on Saturday banned Republican Gov. Kristi Noem from the Pine Ridge Reservation after she suggested sending razor wire to Texas to help deter immigration and said that cartels were infiltrating Native American reservations in that state.

Among the issues Oklahoma lawmakers are expected to tackle this session is a possible income tax cut, a top priority for Stitt. The House approved a 0.25% reduction in the rate last week, but Senate leaders have said such a move is premature since final revenue numbers haven’t been released.

Senate President Pro Tempore Greg Treat released data over the weekend suggesting that cutting the state’s portion of the sales tax on groceries would save the average Oklahoman more than five times as much as a 0.25% income tax cut.

“Eliminating the grocery tax would provide Oklahomans immediate relief and savings they would see every time they go to the grocery store,” said Treat, R-Oklahoma City.

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Tribal sovereignty among the top issues facing Oklahoma governor and Legislature