On the topic of gaming, the chasm between the governor’s office and many of Oklahoma’s Indian tribes could not be wider. It appears only the courts will be able to narrow it.

The divide has existed since last summer when Gov. Kevin Stitt informed tribes that the state’s gaming compacts would expire Dec. 31 and he wanted to renegotiate terms. Leaders of the tribes have said they are willing to discuss new compacts, but insist the original compacts automatically renewed Jan. 1. Several tribes are part of a federal lawsuit seeking a ruling to that effect.

Along the way, two tribes that initially joined in the lawsuit, the Comanche Nation and the Otoe-Missouri Tribe, dropped out after agreeing to new compacts with the governor’s office. Among other things, the compacts would let each tribe put new casinos at three locations and let them conduct sports wagering and e-sports betting.

In an op-ed in The Oklahoman on Wednesday, the tribes’ chairmen said the deals “will have a generational impact on our tribal members and communities and will likely change the face of gaming in Oklahoma for years to come.” The agreements “are legally sound and are good for our people and the state of Oklahoma …”

That view is 180 degrees apart from that of Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter, who in an official opinion last week called the compacts illegal because state law does not allow the sports betting and other types of gaming included in them.

“The Governor can no more permit gambling prohibited by state criminal law via unilateral compact than he could agree to allow a Tribe to sell illicit controlled substances to members in Indian country,” Hunter’s opinion said. “The Governor lacks the authority to unilaterally bind the State to compacts with Indian tribes that authorize activity prohibited by state law.”

The opinion followed a request by the top two leaders in the Legislature, House Speaker Charles McCall, R-Atoka, and Senate President Pro Tem Greg Treat, R-Oklahoma City. They said the governor had overstepped his authority because the Legislature was not involved.

Stitt’s attorneys say the governor acted within his purview in negotiating the new deals and that legislative approval wasn’t required.

The compacts require approval from the Department of Interior. In a letter urging the head of that agency to reject the compacts, Hunter said he feared they could wind up hurting relationships between the state and the two tribes. In addition, approval from Interior would “only cause greater confusion and uncertainty about how state-tribal relations should be appropriately conducted,” Hunter argued.

Hunter’s official opinion pleased the Oklahoma Indian Gaming Association, whose governing board has suspended the memberships of the Comanche and Otoe-Missouria tribes. The state and its tribes “deserve better than the carelessness Governor Stitt has brought to the table,” OIGA Chairman Matthew Morgan said.

Stitt’s stated motive in this endeavor — a better deal for all Oklahomans — may be sincere but it has fostered resentment and hard feelings, a most unfortunate result indeed. Here’s hoping this rift can be closed one day.

This was originally published on May 10 and is reprinted with permission from The Oklahoman.

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