OKLAHOMA CITY — Editor's note: This is the second in a series of stories reflecting on Gov. Brad Henry's time in office.
By Trevor Brown
CNHI Capital Bureau
OKLAHOMA CITY – Tribal gaming revenue in the state was estimated at about $466 million when Gov. Brad Henry took office in 2003.
Nearly eight years later, the American Indian gambling industry has burgeoned into a multibillion industry. With new policies that expanded what types of games are legal, both tribal and commercial gaming enterprises have reached new heights in Oklahoma.
Henry said he does not regret pushing an aggressive agenda to lead some of the largest gaming expansions in the state's history. He said weighing the potential benefits against the consequences of increased gaming came down to simply looking at a pragmatic approach of what is best for the state.
“Whatever consequences there are today as a result of gaming, it existed in 2004 before we passed the state-tribal gaming regulation act, because we had virtually every form of gaming in Oklahoma already at the time,” he said. “Unregulated, the state didn't get any money, education didn't get any money but tribal gaming was proliferating across the state. It was a no-brainer.”
In looking back at his tenure as governor shortly before he leaves office, Henry said he strongly backs his efforts to transform the state's gambling industry and provide the state with hundreds of million of dollars in new revenue.
Leading the cause
In addition to creating a state lottery to fund education, voters approved a state question in 2004 that allowed tribes to enter compacts with the state so they could offer additional types of gambling. Henry played a large role in convincing legislators to place the proposals on the ballot and then for voters to approve them.
The tribal-state compact allowed eligible tribes to pay a monthly exclusivity fee to the state in exchange for the exclusive right to operate Class III gaming services, which includes Las Vegas-style slot machines and card games. The state question also set up provisions for a limited number of licensed racetracks to use electronic gaming machines.
Before the state question was approved, tribes were only permitted to run Class II gaming operations, such as bingo halls. But Henry said there was no lack of gambling opportunities in the state before 2004.
Henry argues expanding gambling actually helped regulate what already was occurring. In addition, he said it provided clarity and specific guidelines so tribes could avoid lawsuits concerning what type of gambling is permitted.
“We already had parimutuel racing, bingo halls were on many corners and anybody with a computer and Internet access could go play real Las Vegas-style games,” Henry said. “So, I maintain we had some problems from gaming that already existed in 2004. So I said let us give (the tribes) a little bit of certainty and, at the same time, get in return some ability to oversee these operations and share in the revenue. It just made ultimate sense to me.”