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Stitt Confident He'll Prevail in Gaming Lawsuit, But Tribes Say Future Talks May Not Involve Him

Matt Trotter

Gov. Kevin Stitt's response to three Oklahoma tribes' federal lawsuit to resolve their gaming compact dispute was meant to force the sides to the negotiating table, but it may have backfired.

Chickasaw Nation General Counsel Stephen Greetham said the Chickasaw, Choctaw and Cherokee nations are still open to talks, mainly about exclusivity fee rates, after the lawsuit is resolved.

"Once we get through the thick of the litigation – we’re confident in our position – when there are future negotiations, chances are they’re going to be led by the legislature, not by Gov. Stitt, mostly because of the damage he’s doing to the tribal-state relationship right now," Greetham said.

Stitt responded this week to the tribes' lawsuit asking a judge to find the gaming compacts automatically renewed Jan. 1. His filing asked the judge to declare Class III gaming illegal and shut it down.

The governor and an out-of-state law firm he hired for compact work parted ways ahead of that response. Stitt said that’s because his focus shifted to the lawsuit.

"And my attorneys in Oklahoma are fantastic litigators, they’re fantastic attorneys, and they’re going to win this lawsuit in federal court," Stitt said.

Greetham said the tribes knew the risk when they filed the lawsuit but are confident in their position.

"The state to date – and they have filed their answer in this complaint – has yet to identify a substantive basis to support the conclusion they have that the compact expires other than these rote assertions of absurdity," Greetham said.

Stitt said if he does lose, he hasn’t ruled out any moves, including inviting commercial casino operators to the state. He claims they’ll pay $350 million a year for the privilege, more than tribes’ exclusivity fees and also to the benefit of Oklahomans.

"Would they rather have $350 million? Or would they rather have $137 million? So, let’s just make sure this is a fair deal. I’m not trying to hurt the gaming industry," Stitt said.

Despite the sides' firm stances on renewal, there are some areas where they agree. Stitt said he wants just the bigger tribes to pay more in exclusivity fees.

"I don’t think the smaller tribes will be harmed at all. We’ll hold them steady," Stitt said.

Greetham said the tribal position is most tribes hsould not be affected by rate changes, and leaders have been talking about a tiered structure.

"But we’re not going to negotiate with a gun to our head where the governor is trying to tear up our compact to walk away from it. We’re going to do it with a stable, renewed compact and under federal law," Greetham said.

Greetham said tribes went to court because a previous federal circuit court ruling on tribal gaming took arbitration off the table and because they need a legal determination as soon as possible.

Stitt on Thursday said tribes can still agree to an eight-month extension of the compacts and resume negotiations.