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Lawmakers reject gaming compacts for two small Oklahoma tribes

Oklahoma State Capitol
Oklahoma State Capitol

Saying there were “significant fatal flaws,” Oklahoma lawmakers on Wednesday unanimously rejected a pair of compacts that would have allowed two tribes to offer gaming outside of their traditional boundaries.

Leaders with the United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians and the Kialegee Tribal Town said after the vote that they were disappointed lawmakers did not give them a chance to speak during the hour-long hearing. They wanted to tell lawmakers how members of their small and economically disadvantaged tribes would benefit from building new casinos in eastern Oklahoma County and in Guthrie.

“Today’s defeat, it hurt,” said Joe Bunch, chief of the United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians.

But supporters said if the tribes prevail in an ongoing federal lawsuit, they could still move forward with both casinos despite the committee’s vote. Both compacts have already received the necessary federal approval from the U.S. Department of the Interior, but were invalidated by the Oklahoma Supreme Court.

Supporters said receiving approval from the Legislature’s 10-member Joint Committee on State-Tribal Relations would have helped end a federal lawsuit in Washington D.C. filed by other Oklahoma tribes who are challenging the compacts.

The joint committee is designed to serve as a legislative check on executive powers by reviewing proposed intergovernmental compacts, including those negotiated by the Governor’s Office. The joint committee typically approves compacts before they’re submitted to the Department of the Interior.

But members of the committee instead voted to reject both as tribal members sat by silently and watched.

Members of the committee expressed concerns that allowing the tribes to build outside their boundaries could set an unwanted precedent moving forward. They also worried about increasing the number of casinos in the state.

Legal advice from the state attorney general also weighed on lawmakers’ minds.

In an Oct. 23 letter to sent committee members, Attorney General Gentner Drummond said “proper respect for the law compels the conclusion that the Joint Committee lacks the authority to make valid that which the Oklahoma Supreme Court earlier declared to be invalid.”

Stitt’s office contended Drummond’s interpretation was incorrect.

Still, as he moved to reject them, Sen. Greg McCortney, R-Ada, said there were “significant fatal flaws” in the compact’s construction regarding the lands granted. He said his opinion won’t change.

Majority Floor Leader Jon Echols, R-Oklahoma City, said he’ll always continue to defend tribes’ ability to offer gaming on their lands. But his Oklahoma County constituents don’t want more casinos.

“I have extreme concerns with carte blanche expansion into Oklahoma County,” Echols said, adding that he is “very nervous.”

The agreements, first signed in 2020, came as Stitt feuded with leaders of other federally recognized tribes over the exclusivity fee rates that the state receives in exchange for allowing them the sole right to operate casinos.

The state’s compact with the United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians would allow the tribe to build a casino in Logan County, roughly 150 miles away from their Tahlequah headquarters. Kialegee Tribal Town’s casino would have been about 80 miles away from their Wetumka headquarters.

Jeff Wacoche, United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians assistant chief, said the tribe already obtained support from Guthrie officials and had been pressing forward with opening a casino there.

“This compact is, or was, a win-win for the state of Oklahoma and the UKB,” he said. “This would benefit all communities.”

Stitt said after the vote that there are already 130 casinos in Oklahoma. He questioned why those two tribes would be barred from operating casinos. He said the state would have received increased gaming revenue, and both compacts would have been best for all 4 million Oklahomans.

Gina Powell, Kialegee Tribal Town second warrior, said the compacts would have benefited their tribal members.

“We are kind of disappointed that we weren’t able to speak at that table and give our side of the story,” she said.

Oklahoma Voice is part of States Newsroom, a nonprofit news network supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Oklahoma Voice maintains editorial independence.

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