Government , Business , Legal

Gov. Stitt uses COVID-19 as a bargaining chip with tribal gaming compacts

OKLAHOMA CITY — With casinos temporarily shuttered across Oklahoma due to COVID-19, attorneys for Gov. Kevin Stitt apparently attempted to reach a compact deal with some of the state’s gaming tribes.

According to a letter dated March 24 and sent to several of Oklahoma’s gaming tribes, attorneys for Gov. Stitt cite the novel coronavirus pandemic as a reason to sign a new 15-year compact with the state.

“Enterprises throughout Oklahoma are suffering from the COVID-19 pandemic, including your gaming facilities,” attorney Steve Mullins wrote. “Tribal gaming provides the resources necessary for you to deliver critical care and services to your citizens. When that revenue is challenged by something as unforeseen as a pandemic, your ability to provide for the health and welfare of your people is challenged.

“By committing to resolve our differences with this new compact, you provide certainty to your tribal gaming enterprise, allowing for a swifter recovery when the commercial interruption caused by the pandemic is over.”

As of March 31, all of Oklahoma’s tribal casinos are closed to help stem the spread of COVID-19.

The proposal attached with Mullins’ letter calls for a fixed rate of 5 or 6 percent on Class III table and electronic games. The proposal also allows one sports betting license per tribe, pending approval by the Oklahoma legislature.

Additionally, the proposed compact also includes “state oversight assessment fees” ranging from $25,000 to $250,000, depending on how much gaming revenue a tribe brings in annually and language that explicitly states that the compact, if adopted, would expire on Dec. 31, 2035. If a new agreement is not in place by that time, then the state would not be required to provide tribal exclusivity for Class III gaming.

The letter comes as mediation continues in a federal lawsuit between Gov. Stitt and a dozen tribes over the status of the state’s model gaming compact.

Due to COVID-19, Judge Timothy DeGuisti issued an order in mid-March extending mediation between Gov. Kevin Stitt and a dozen Oklahoma gaming tribes through May 31. He originally set a deadline of March 31, with a status conference later scheduled for April 4. A court order bars participating tribes and the governor’s office from publicly commenting on the status of those talks.

In a statement issued March 27, Oklahoma Indian Gaming Association Chairman Matthew Morgan noted that the letter’s confirmed recipients were not part of the litigation and expressed disappointment in the state’s attempt to use the pandemic as a bargaining chip.

“We are disappointed in the action taken by Governor Stitt through one of his attorneys to take advantage of tribes as they focus on protecting their tribal citizens and non-tribal citizens during this pandemic.  

“Since July we have made it clear that we are open to renegotiating rates as outlined in Part 11 of the compacts. Any party may request to renegotiate rates and exclusivity. Governor Stitt, however, has steadfastly rejected that framework, dismissed the tribal position, insisting on tossing overboard an intergovernmental agreement that has worked well for all Oklahomans.”