Tribes start casino gambling negotiations with Oklahoma

SEAN MURPHY
FILE - In this Thursday, Sept. 12, 2019 file photo, Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter speaks during a news conference in Oklahoma City. Oklahoma-based Indian tribes and the state's attorney general are meeting behind closed doors on Monday, Oct. 28, 2019 to discuss the gambling compacts between the state and the tribes that authorize most of the games at tribal casinos. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki, File)

SHAWNEE, Okla. (AP) — Oklahoma's attorney general began casino gambling negotiations with more than two dozen tribal nations on Monday, but the sides remain locked in a stalemate over whether the existing gaming compacts automatically renew at the end of the year.

Attorney General Mike Hunter described the two-hour, closed-door meeting at the Citizen Potawatomi Nation's Grand Casino Hotel & Resort as "positive and constructive," but offered few details about the stalemate. He said the meeting was a good opportunity to outline the state's position.

Oklahoma's new Republican Gov. Kevin Stitt has taken the position that the 15-year compacts expire at the end of the year and wants to renegotiate the terms to give the state a larger share of casino revenue.

The 35 tribal nations with gaming compacts are unified in their position that the agreements automatically renew after Jan. 1 if an agreement can't be reached on new terms, and that that issue must be resolved before negotiations can begin.

"The way forward is to come up with a process that resolves the dispute, getting that resolved, getting it in a trajectory where it is no longer a barrier to looking at ways to modify the compact in a way that benefits the tribes and the state mutually and cooperatively," Hunter said.

Matthew Morgan, chairman of the Oklahoma Indian Gaming Association and a key player in the discussions, said tribal leaders will take time to assess today's discussion, but that it's clear there is a "major dispute" over the renewal language.

"Nothing is more important to the tribes than resolving the automatic renewal, and we are committed to continued dialogue," Morgan said in a statement.

Oklahoma's current gambling compacts call for the tribes to pay between 4% and 10% of a casino's net revenue in "exclusivity fees," which gives tribes the exclusive rights to operate casinos in the state. Those fees generated nearly $139 million in payments to the state last year on roughly $2.3 billion in revenue from games covered under the compacts.

Nearly 60% of Oklahoma voters approved a state question in 2004 that authorized expanded gambling, and nearly all the tribal nations in Oklahoma signed compacts with the state shortly thereafter. Casino gambling is now a booming industry in Oklahoma, with 130 casinos dotting the state, ranging from gas station annexes to resort-style hotel casinos, many of them in border communities.

Without a compact in place, Oklahoma tribes would be unable to offer many games at casinos, including advanced slot machine-style electronic games or card games such as poker and blackjack. Casinos could still feature bingo-style electronic games, which remain popular in Oklahoma and don't require the tribes to pay any fees to the state.

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