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Capitol Insider: Governor Kevin Stitt On State-Tribal Relations

Legislative Service Bureau (LSB) Photography
Governor Kevin Stitt delivers State of the State address

Oklahoma's 2021 legislative session is off and running following Governor Kevin Stitt's annual State of the State address. In his speech, he identified several issues the legislature needs to focus on in the year ahead and most important among them, he said, is the relationship between Oklahoma's government and the sovereign Native American nations within the state. In the first of a two-part Capitol Insider interview on the upcoming legislative session, the governor discussed how questions raised by the U.S. Supreme Court decision in the McGirt v. Oklahoma case may be resolved. 


Dick Pryor: This is Capitol Insider, your weekly look inside Oklahoma politics, policy and government. I'm Dick Pryor with eCapitol news director, Shawn Ashley. Our guest is the governor of the state of Oklahoma, Kevin Stitt. Governor, it's good to have you back with us.

Governor Kevin Stitt: Thank you so much. Such an honor to be back with you guys.

Dick Pryor: The first session of the 58th Oklahoma legislature resumed last Monday with your State of the State address. Late in the speech, you noted that the most pressing issue for the state's future involves tribal sovereignty, specifically the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling in McGirt v. Oklahoma. That decision raises many important questions about Oklahoma's relationship with Native American nations. How are you proposing to resolve those critical issues?

Governor Kevin Stitt: Well, first off, I think most Oklahomans know this, that I'm actually a fourth generation Oklahoman and a member of the Cherokee Nation. What this is, is about Oklahoma sovereignty and how we all work together in the state of Oklahoma to build a bright future. We all grew up learned in school that we didn't have reservations in Oklahoma. So, what the Supreme Court ruling basically said that reservations still exist it just brings up “well, where does Oklahoma sovereignty come in?” If the tribal sovereignty is elevated, then Oklahoma’s sovereignty is de-elevated and I believe we have to have one set of rules regardless of your race or where you live. And if we don't have a common set of rules on taxation and zoning, civil, criminal, I do not believe Oklahoma can be a top ten state if we have six different sets of rules, depending on what county you live in in the state of Oklahoma.

Shawn Ashley: Governor, you mentioned taxation and zoning and civil and criminal jurisprudence. There are a lot of different issues involved in this. How do you plan to prioritize these or are you looking for an overarching solution to address these issues?

Governor Kevin Stitt: Number one, the Supreme Court said this only dealt with Major Crimes Act, so that is my stance. That's what the Supreme Court said, and that's all it is. I mean, it is just Major Crimes Act, which has enough problems of its own that we need to deal with, which we can talk about those. However, you have right now, Native Americans that are protesting their taxes to the Tax Commission. If it's a reservation and they live on a reservation land can the state get income tax? So, we already have those cases and obviously the Tax Commission is saying you absolutely have to pay income tax. That may have to be litigated.

We just those – all those issues - how do you deal with it? Number one, Congress could fix it very simply by just stating that we go back to a pre-McGirt rule that only tribal land in trust….we already know what the rules are with tribal lands that are put into trust. Not all these other counties in eastern Oklahoma is reservation. So, Congress could fix it. There's not a lot of appetite right now because of the way the politics works there in D.C. You could sit down with all five tribes. You could try to compact away all these different issues, Right now, you would need federal legislation just to compact the criminal side. So that has to go back through Congress. You could compact civil in taxation now. But again, my opinion is it doesn't even affect that. Now, the Seminoles actually sent a letter to all of the oil and gas industry and said, “hey, you owe us an eight percent gross production tax.” And then about a month later, they came back and pulled it back and said, “well, we're not going to enforce that at this time.” So, I believe that the tribes think it moves past into civil and taxation, which is going to be very, very complicated. So, in any ways, or you could go back to the courts. The Supreme Court has a new member now, Amy Coney Barrett has replaced Ginsburg, who actually was in favor of the McGirt decision,  so there's a possibility the court would overturn this and reverse their decision, as well.

So, a lot of different methods you could you could go about. I've just tried to open up communications with the tribes and invited them to the table. Some of them told me, no, they're not willing to talk, and some of them said they are willing to talk. People need to understand what this means for the future of our state and sometimes I feel like I'm the only one that's trying to get this out there…that this is a big, big issue and a big problem that has to be resolved for us to be a top ten state.

Dick Pryor:  Tribes have different interests. What's your relationship with the tribes, in general?

Governor Kevin Stitt: I have a great relationship with some tribal leaders and some tribal leaders it's a little bit cold because I was trying to renegotiate the gaming compact to get more revenue, which I thought was more fair for the state of Oklahoma. And obviously I don't begrudge in them for arguing the other side of the table because they want to pay less. But I'm going to always think about what's best for Oklahoma and all four million Oklahomans in my in my responses and in my stances.

Dick Pryor: Governor Kevin Stitt, we appreciate your responses and thanks for joining us.

Governor Kevin Stitt: Absolutely. Thank you so much. I'd love to come back any time.

Dick Pryor: That's great. We will have you back. Good luck in the session and in the year ahead.

Governor Kevin Stitt: Thank you.

Dick Pryor: And that's Capitol Insider. If you have questions, e-mail us at news@kgou.org or contact us on Twitter @kgounews and @ecapitol. You can also find us online at kgou.org and at ecapitol.net. Until next time, with Shawn Ashley, I’m Dick Pryor.

Dick Pryor has more than 25 years of experience in public service media, having previously served as deputy director, managing editor, news manager, news anchor and host for OETA, Oklahoma’s statewide public TV network. He was named general manager of KGOU Radio in November, 2016.
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