Oklahoma lawmakers unanimously rejected two gaming compacts that would’ve allowed two Native American tribes to offer gaming outside their territories. The Joint Committee on State-Tribal Relations saw “significant fatal flaws” in the compacts Gov. Kevin Stitt had signed with the United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians and the Kialegee Tribal Town.
Stitt crafted individual compacts with four tribes after having failed to modify the existing compact, which applies to all tribes in the state. Besides the two now-rejected compacts, has signed similar agreements with the Commanche Nation and Otoe-Missouria Tribe.
Committee Concerned by Gambling Expansion
Trevor Pemberton, representing the governor, told the committee that the compacts will benefit the state economy. However, lawmakers didn’t see it that way. The committee members said they were worried about increasing the number of casinos in the state. Majority Floor Leader Jon Echols, R-Oklahoma City, said his constituents don’t want more casinos.
The committee added that allowing tribes to conduct gaming outside their boundaries could set a risky precedent. The governor’s compact would’ve allowed the United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians to build a casino 150 miles away from their headquarters. Meanwhile, the Kialegee Tribal Town’s planned casino would be about half that distance away.
Representatives of the two tribes were disappointed with the decision. Joe Bunch, chief of the United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians, said the defeat hurts. Meanwhile, Gina Powell, Kialegee Tribal Town’s second warrior, said the compacts would’ve helped their community. She added her disappointment at being unable to present their side of the story during the hearing.
Governor’s Three-Way Legal Battles Continue
The compacts signed by Gov. Stitt have sparked a series of legal battles in Oklahoma. The US Department of Interior approved them, but the Oklahoma Supreme Court subsequently overturned them. State Attorney General Gentner Drummond has criticized the governor’s actions, saying he acted beyond his legal powers. Drummond even seeks to take over the role of representing the state during tribal gaming negotiations.
The Attorney General also sent a letter to the Joint Committee on State-Tribal Relations saying it lacks the authority to validate Gov. Stitt’s compacts. That letter could’ve been a critical factor in the committee’s decision.
But the governor’s battle is not only with state lawmakers. His relationship with the tribes has been frosty throughout his tenure, and the compacts did not help his cause. Other tribes, especially larger ones, oppose his actions. That resulted in some of them, including Cherokee, Chickasaw, Citizen Potawatomi, and Choctaw, filing a federal lawsuit in the District of Columbia.
Aside from the compacts, Gov. Stitt scored a legal victory over the native tribes earlier this year. A federal judge ruled that two changes to the state’s gambling laws don’t violate Oklahoma’s tribal gambling compacts.
Echoes of the Florida Compact Challenge
Whether Gov. Stitt acted within his legal powers to extend gaming beyond tribal borders is yet to be determined. In that regard, the situation in Oklahoma bears some resemblance to the legal drama unfolding around Florida sports betting. The question of the limits of compacting versus legislation when it comes to off-reservation gambling is one whose answer will shape the US gambling industry for years to come.
In 2021, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis signed a compact with the Seminole Nation that allowed the tribe to offer sports betting exclusively through its Hard Rock Sportsbook. Retail gaming operator West Flagler Associates has challenged the agreement’s legality under the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (IGRA) and the Florida Constitution.
That has become a battle on two fronts, with simultaneous challenges before the federal and state Supreme Courts.
More Legal Battles On Tribal Compacts Likely
These cases questioning territorial gaming compacts in Oklahoma and Florida could serve as a preview of what’s to come. Many states see compacts as an easier path to gambling expansion than legislation, especially where the latter requires a constitutional amendment. Proposed changes to administrative rules by the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) could make the compacting path even more appealing.
If they’re unchanged from the draft version, the BIA’s official stance will be that using on-reservation servers to take off-reservation bets is a valid interpretation of the law. Meanwhile, in the West Flagler case, the US Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit opined that state courts should be the ones to make that decision. Taken together, these stances could set the stage for legal chaos.
If geographical restrictions become state courts’ responsibilities, we could see many tribes pushing for online casino gaming and sports betting expansion through compacts in states whose legislatures have not yet legalized those products. More challenges from commercial operators finding themselves cut out of the market by compacts would then be inevitable.