OKLAHOMA CITY — Oklahoma’s governor could force tribes to the negotiating table if he can convince lawmakers to outlaw gaming at horse race tracks by year end, the primary architect of the state’s gaming compacts said this week.
But Scott Meacham said Gov. Kevin Stitt would have to act quickly and call a special session to get it done. That's because tribal compacts are slated to renew automatically Jan. 1, 2020, he said.
Meacham, now president and CEO of the Oklahoma-based venture firm i2E, negotiated the current tribal compacts nearly 15 years ago while serving as secretary of finance and revenue. The voter-approved compacts allow tribes to offer gaming in exchange for paying the state exclusivity fees ranging from 4 to 10 percent.
Gaming officials report that those fees have generated more than $1.5 billion over the last 15 years.
Stitt, though, said he wants to start a negotiation process that “refines and improves” the compacts.
In an August letter to tribal leaders, he wrote that while gaming has been enormously successful, “this does not preclude us from taking into account the developments of the last 15 years in deciding how we want to move forward. I genuinely believe in the possibility of an updated gaming compact that will inure to the benefit of both the tribes and the state.”
Meacham said the compacts were structured to renew automatically provided the state is allowing gaming at horse racing tracks or anywhere else.
“The compacts would not automatically renew on Jan. 1 if, prior to that point, the state has repealed any other gaming that’s going on in the state,” he said.
But Meacham said outlawing gaming at horse tracks could cause “a lot of consternation” among certain members of the Legislature. Rural voters breed horses, grow hay and employ veterinarians.
Matthew Morgan, chairman of the Oklahoma Indian Gaming Association, said both sides could do a lot of things that “would not be good” for the ongoing relationship between state and tribal governments.
“I would hope that we don’t enter into that realm because that’s not productive for anyone,” he said. “Not only would that type of conversation harm that relationship, but in 2004 when the compact was entered into… one of the main purposes was to save the horse racing industry.”
Morgan said any move to outlaw horse racing “would be devastating” to the industry.
“I’m not sure how attempting to destroy two industries helps the state,” he said.
Morgan said most of the tribal leaders are waiting to see a proposal from Stitt and Attorney General Mike Hunter, believing it’s prudent to have one in hand before they enter into any conversations.
“They want to see what they want to talk about before they walk into the room and have any type of conversation,” he said.
Stitt had initially recommended a Sept. 3 meeting, but it didn’t happen, and no tribal representatives attended.
Leaders with 34 tribes, meanwhile, have been meeting with each other to discuss the compacts, Morgan said.
Still, Morgan said he’s hopeful the state and tribal governments can reach a point where they can get back on track.
In all, 35 tribes currently have compacts with the state set for renewal, he said.
Morgan said the tribes want to be good partners to the state.
“I think tribal leaders would listen, but it has to make economic sense for the tribes,” he said. “A one-sided deal doesn’t work.”
A Stitt spokeswoman referred comment on a possible special session and negotiations to the state Attorney General’s Office, which “is the lead on coordinating a meeting between the state and the tribes.”
Hunter’s office is in the process of securing a meeting date and location to begin the conversation on the compacts, said Alex Gerszewski, a spokesman for the attorney general.
The state meets with the tribes and discuss the scope of the compacts and proposed rates ahead of each renewal.
“The attorney general and the governor look forward to a mutually constructive and beneficial dialogue with tribal leadership,” he said in a statement. “As with all negotiations, Attorney General Hunter believes they are most successful when we proceed in a manner that respects their dynamic and delicate nature. Therefore, there will be no further comment on the negotiations from the Attorney General’s Office or the Governor’s Office until further notice.”
Stecklein covers the Oklahoma Statehouse for CNHI's newspapers and websites. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.