Anoatubby: Gaming dispute is about renewal, not rates

Guests and dignitaries listen intently Tuesday at the annual Lou Watkins Lecture at East Central University’s Foundation Hall.

The fight over Oklahoma’s tribal gaming compacts is really about whether the agreements renew automatically, not whether the state should receive a bigger share of casino revenues, Chickasaw Nation Gov. Bill Anoatubby said Tuesday.

“It’s very important that renewal be acknowledged before we can move on to these other issues,” he said. “One shouldn’t, and really can’t, occur without the other.”

Anoatubby discussed the dispute over tribal gaming compacts during the annual Lou Watkins Lecture at East Central University. The lecture, named for the former chairman of ECU’s political science department, brings experts on state, local and national issues to campus to address those topics.

Olahoma Gov. Kevin Stit and 35 Native American tribes  have reached an impasse in their battle over tribal gaming compacts. The dispute centers on two issues; Whether the compacts expired in 2020, and whether the state should receive a larger percentage of gaming revenues.

Stitt contends that the compact ended as of Jan. 1 and that tribally owned casinos are operating illegally since the compacts expired. But the Chickasaw Nation and other tribes argue that the compact renews automatically as long as certain conditions are met.

Anoatubby said tribal leaders were taken aback when they received a letter from Stitt’s office in July, indicating that he wanted to overhaul the gaming compacts.

“It was not just about the fact that he wanted to actually start over, toss the compact out and do another one,” Anoatubby said. “But the tone of the letter —  the tribes felt disrespected by it. It’s been pretty difficult to bring everybody together. We must be on the same page.”

The compacts authorize tribes to offer gaming in exchange for paying the state exclusivity fees that range from 4% to 10%. Gaming officials have estimated that the state has taken in more than $1.5 billion in gaming fees over the past 15 years.

Stitt has said he is willing to extend the compacts for another 15 years, but he contends the tribes should pay higher exclusivity fees. He is also seeking new language in the compacts that spells out what will happen the next time they are due for renewal.

Tribal leaders have indicated they would consider taking a second look at the rates, but not until Stitt agrees that the compacts renew automatically.

“We have to have a compact before we can do rates,” Anoatubby said. “That’s the bottom line.”

The Cherokee, Chickasaw and Choctaw nations recently took Stitt to court, asking a federal judge to resolve the renewal issue in the tribes’ favor. Stitt’s office filed a response to the tribal lawsuit, asking the judge to declare that the compacts ended Jan. 1 and bar the tribes from continuing to offer Class III gaming in Oklahoma.

Anoatubby said the lawsuit is still pending, and he did not know when the court would issue a ruling.

“We’re very early in the stages, and I’m certainly not qualified to tell you how long this will last,” he said. “It could last a longer time, or it could be shorter.

“We would like to have an answer next week, but it won’t happen.”

Stitt spokeswoman Baylee Lakey did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment Tuesday.

CNHI state reporter Janelle Stecklein contributed to this report.

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