A federal judge confirmed what was plain and unambiguous to everybody except Gov. Kevin Stitt and those who steered him down a path that eroded the state's relations with federally recognized tribes that call Oklahoma home.
Chief U.S. District Judge Timothy DeGiusti found the gaming compacts executed by the state and several tribes automatically renewed for additional 15-year term starting Jan. 1 by “by operation of the unambiguous terms” included in each of those agreements. The ruling sustains intergovernmental agreements that proved to be mutually beneficial during the past 15 years.
The gaming compacts grant tribes the authority to offer Class III gambling in exchange for their agreements to pay exclusivity fees for the privilege. Those fees generated revenue for state coffers totaling more $1.5 billion during the past 15 years.
Gaming also generates revenue for the tribes, which proved to be effective stewards of the casino profits. One study found Oklahoma’s 38 federally recognized tribes contributed $12.93 billion to the state’s economy in fiscal year 2017, paying more than $4.6 billion in wages and benefits and supporting more than 96,100 direct and indirect jobs.
Some tribes increased minimum wages to levels that exceed the $7.25 an hour cap established by state law, raising the standard of living in some parts of the state. They also have drawn from gaming revenue streams to invest in the public infrastructure — roads and bridges, education, and health care in rural areas too often overlooked by state lawmakers.
Instead of recognizing the value of these gaming compacts, acknowledging the automatic renewal clause, and renegotiating fees in good faith with tribes, the governor, according to reporting by the Tulsa World, chose to spend more than $1.5 million to defend his legal folly.
The actual cost of this decision, of course, far exceeds that which can be tallied on ledger sheets. Stitt's decision to divide the tribes and attempt to conquer them by executing side deals invalidated earlier this month by another judge undermined a foundation of trust that took years to establish.
The governor's decision to double down on his instincts to divide rather than reunify is even more unsettling. Instead of accepting the ruling and moving forward, Stitt decided to stoke fears about "a poorly negotiated deal" and some unsubstantiated impact of a recent U.S. Supreme Court opinion that found the boundaries of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation — defined by 19th-century treaties — still exist as an "Indian reservation for purposes of federal criminal law."
In doing so, the governor follows what Justice Neil Gorsuch described while writing for the majority in McGirt v. Oklahoma as a "sadly familiar pattern" of rationalizing broken promises because "the price of keeping them has become too great." The governor must reconsider.
Stitt should follow the recommendations of the McGirt opinion and "reject that thinking." That is the cost of restoring the mutually beneficial relationships established15 years ago by these gaming compacts and forging even stronger partnerships for the future.