Choctaw chief ready to defend tribe's position

JAMES BEATYChoctaw Nation of Oklahoma Chief Gary Batton talks with the News-Capital regarding the tribe's gaming compact with the state of Oklahoma and Gov. Kevin Stitt's plans to renegotiate the gaming compact with the Indian tribes operating Class III gaming facilities in the state.

Chief Gary Batton says he's open to negotiating with Gov. Kevin Stitt in regard to the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma's Tribal Gaming Compact with the state — but he maintains the governor should not expect any renegotiated agreement to be one-sided in the state's favor.

Batton told the News-Capital that the Choctaw Nation is ready to stand its ground, together with the 31 total tribes in the state operating Class III games under the federal Indian Gaming Regulatory Act.

They will defend their position in court, if it comes to that, he said.

Batton said he and other tribal leaders disagree with the way the governor is interpreting what will happen when the current compact expires on Jan. 1, 2020, if a new compact agreement is not negotiated and signed.

"I think we are at odds," Batton said of the way the tribes and the governor view the existing agreement. "We have a difference of opinion on the way we read the compact."

Batton and other tribal leaders contend the current gaming compact will automatically renew if no new agreement is reached. He said the governor has let the tribes know he disagrees.

What does Batton think will occur if the governor and the tribes which are operating gaming facilities don't reach a new negotiated Tribal Gaming Compact agreement by Jan. 1, 2020?

Like Batton said, he and the other tribal leaders contend the current compact will automatically renew. What happens next could be up to the governor.

"If we can't come to an agreement, we will see what happens," Batton said.

"If it comes to litigation, if he takes it to court, we will fight that battle."

Exclusivity payments

The issue revolves around exclusivity payments the tribes make to the state — which guarantees the tribes have the exclusive right to operate Class III gaming casinos in Oklahoma.

Class III gaming includes slot machines, roulette, dice, blackjack and horse racing, among other activities.

While there is a sliding scale on what is paid, Batton said the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma and the other tribes covered by the compact currently pay the state from 6 to 8 percent of the tribe's winnings from the gaming operations.

He said the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma's payments amounted to approximately $28 million in exclusivity fees last year. The Choctaw Nation operates 22 casinos in Oklahoma, according to the Oklahoma Gaming Compliance Unit Annual Report for the 2018 Fiscal Year.

The $28 million is not counting what the Choctaw Nation contributes in other ways, such as the $13,000 awarded to the city of McAlester and the $5,600 recently granted to Pittsburg County through the tribe's Choctaw Community Partner Fund, Batton noted. The Choctaw Nation also makes contributions to public schools, roads and in other areas, including the thousands of dollars donated to McAlester's Streetscapes project.

Payments and donations are made in similar fashion to other municipalities and counties throughout the Choctaw Nation, Batton said.

Negotiation points

Batton does agree with Stitt on some points. He said he agrees that Stitt can attempt to draw up new terms under the compact that is currently in place.

"It says the governor has the ability to renegotiate," Batton said of the current compact.

Batton said he recently traveled to Oklahoma City to speak personally with Stitt, when he inquired about any specific proposals the governor wanted to renegotiate.

"He does not have a plan," Batton said.

What would be some terms Batton would be willing to see renegotiated with the state? Paying a more higher exclusivity fee is not among them.

"The only reason would be less of a fee or expanded horse-betting," Batton said.

Batton reiterated that the tribes won't agree to a renegotiated contract that will only benefit the state.

"We would not negotiate a lesser fee," Batton said — meaning a fee that would result in the tribe getting to keep a lesser piece of the pie than they do now.

"We signed an agreement and we believe it to be evergreen," Batton said.

Tribal payments

Together, the 31 tribes which operate Class III gaming facilities paid the state of Oklahoma almost $139 million in exclusivity fees during the 2018 Fiscal Year, according to the Oklahoma Gaming Compliance Unit's Annual Report. That's 3.48% increase over the 2017 Fiscal Year. It also marked the fourth consecutive year that the exclusivity payments set at new record.

Tribes paid the $139 million after generating nearly $2.3 billion in new revenue from Class III electronic gaming and nonhouse-banked card games, the report states.

Money generated from exclusivity fees are distributed to the Education Reform Revolving Fund, also known as the House Bill 1017 Fund. Portions also go to the General Revenue Fund and the Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services.

For the 2018 Fiscal Year, that broke down to $121.7 million paid in exclusivity fees by the 31 gaming tribes to the 1017 Fund, along with $16.6 million for the General Revenue Fund and the $250,000 which state statutes set for the Oklahoma Department of Mental Health to receive from exclusivity fee payments. That's according to the Oklahoma Gaming Compliance Annual Report. 

As the issue continues, the tribes operating Class III gaming facilities are determined to stick together. Batton noted that all of the tribes that operate gaming facilities have signed, or plan to sign, an agreement stating that they all must agree on any changes in the existing gaming compact.

"Nobody would make a deal" unless all of the tribes agreed to it, Batton said. Most of the tribal representatives signed the compact during a July meeting in Tulsa, he said.

"I'm the one that proposed it,"Batton said. 

Meanwhile, Batton said he is open to looking at anything the governor might present.

"He can prepare to negotiate," Batton said. "If he presents a proposal, we will consider it."

Contact James Beaty at jbeaty@mcalesternews.com