Saturday, September 21, 2019

OCPA: Tribes recently changed tune on gaming compact expiration


A different time?
By Jonathan Small

Currently, Gov. Kevin Stitt and casino operators in Oklahoma appear at a standoff over renegotiation of gambling compacts. For just a moment, I want to take you to a different time in our state’s history when casino operators (tribal officials) not only accepted the need for renegotiation, but were seeking it. It was a time when the principal chief of the Osage Nation wrote Oklahoma’s governor to point out that “the current gaming compacts expire” within roughly three years, and that the “current compact is dated and is not suitable for the current and future business environment of gaming in Oklahoma. I believe it is time to initiate negotiations to jointly endeavor to create a new compact document that will move our respective governments forward for the next decade and beyond.”

It was a time when the chairman of the Comanche Nation wrote the governor to point out that “the current gaming compacts expire” in 22 months, and added, “Logic tells us the current compact is dated and is not conducive for current and future business environments of gaming in Oklahoma.”

When was this long-ago time of peaceful state-tribal co-existence on casino gaming? November 2016 and February 2017, respectively. In other words, not long ago.

What has changed since then, you ask? When it comes to the basic issues of gaming-compact renegotiation—the exclusivity fees tribes pay for the monopoly right to run Oklahoma casinos and the types of games they can offer—nothing has changed.

What’s different today is the person addressed as “governor.”  When the letters I quoted above were written, the then-Oklahoma governor was one of the nation’s most unpopular politicians. It’s easy to see why tribes wanted to negotiate with someone who had no political leverage.

Today, Kevin Stitt is governor, and he argues casino fees should be increased to closer resemble national market rates. Unlike his predecessor, Stitt is popular. And Stitt has proven willing to make the hard choices required for sound fiscal management.

This year, Stitt did something almost unthinkable for most of Oklahoma history. When faced with a near-historic surplus of almost $600 million, Stitt called for (and obtained) $200 million in savings. To see a state leader champion not spending taxpayer money was almost as unexpected at the Capitol as seeing aliens land on the south steps. But Stitt did it. His commitment to renegotiating gaming compacts arises from the same leadership impulse.

Some casino operators suggest the stalemate is due to disagreement over whether gaming compacts have an “auto-renew” provision. The aforementioned letters prove few honestly believe such a provision exists.

Instead, this standoff is occurring because Oklahoma is under new leadership. And that’s something for which many Oklahomans should be grateful.

Jonathan Small serves as president of the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs.

0 comments: