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Media campaigns launched over gaming compact conflict

The Journal Record

OKLAHOMA CITY – Scott Meacham, Oklahoma’s former secretary of finance and revenue who 15 years ago negotiated the legal compact that set the stage for an explosion of investment in tribal gaming in the state, has weighed in on questions raised recently about whether the compact will renew or expire at the end of 2019.

Oklahomans on both sides of the compact renegotiation issue have launched campaigns designed to inform public opinion. United for Oklahoma, for example, a consortium of tribes across the state with assistance from the Oklahoma Indian Gaming Association, has launched a website and produced advertising focusing on positive outcomes resulting from gaming and the rising influence of tribal nations.

“The tribes are an economic engine that impacts the state’s economy by the billions. And they’re making a critical difference in our communities. … When the tribes are strong, our state is strong,” the organization said in a statement. “In every community, you see evidence of tribal impact: improved education, new health care facilities, new roads, new bridges, new jobs. For fiscal year 2017, Oklahoma tribes accounted for 96,177 jobs, $4.6 billion in wages and benefits to Oklahoma workers, and nearly $13 billion in state production of goods and services.”

Another organization, Fair Compact for Oklahoma Education, has shared its message through a website and social media and has not identified a campaign coordinator or spokesperson.

“We are citizens concerned about the level of funding for education in Oklahoma. We are not anti-tribal gaming or even anti-gaming in general. (However), when compared to the other tribal gaming states with revenue share, we believe that Oklahoma’s compact drafted nearly a decade and a half ago is severely outdated and contains rates dramatically below the new market rates being negotiated in other tribal states,” the organization said in a statement posted on its website.

The compact, negotiated and approved by Oklahoma voters in 2004, gave tribes exclusive rights to invest in gaming operations that have since become prevalent throughout the state. According to the OIGA, the compact provides a legal framework for 35 tribes to offer gaming. Thirty-one currently do, operating at least 135 facilities big and small across Oklahoma, including the WinStar World Casino in Thackerville, identified as the largest casino in the world. According to the American Gaming Association, the gaming industry supports more than 75,000 jobs and has an annual economic impact on Oklahoma valued at $9.8 billion.

Gov. Kevin Stitt has said he would like to renegotiate the compact with an eye toward increasing “exclusivity fees” paid by the tribes to the state. The fees represent 4-10% of gaming revenues, depending on games. Tribal nations in Oklahoma, however, have united in opposition to talks unless the state agrees first that the existing compact is subject to automatically renew at year’s end if no changes are made.

Meacham said Monday that the existing compact is indeed subject to renew unless action is taken by the Oklahoma Legislature to change the law as it pertains to electronic gaming currently allowed at horse racing tracks like Remington Park in Oklahoma City. If lawmakers were to vote to remove electronic gaming from tracks, it would be a game-changer, he said.

Meacham said the provision for continuation of the compact is spelled out in Part 15, Section B of the lengthy document, which reads: “This Compact shall have a term which will expire on January 1, 2020, and at that time, if organization licensees or others are authorized to conduct electronic gaming in any form other than pari-mutuel wagering on live horse racing pursuant to any governmental action of the state or court order following the effective date of this Compact, the Compact shall automatically renew for successive 15-year terms; provided that, within 180 days of the expiration of this Compact or any renewal thereof, either the tribe or the state, acting through its Governor, may request to renegotiate the terms of (two particular) subsections.”

“It’s the law outside the compact that would have to change,” Meacham concluded, adding that he believes modifying state law to remove electronic gaming from horse racing tracks would be a losing proposition.

“I’m not advocating for that because it would be devastating to the horse racing industry as well as to the state and tribes,” he said. “It would impact on breeders, veterinarians, hay producers and others.”

Meacham, who was state treasurer from 2005-2011 and is now president of i2E, a private corporation focused on growing innovative small businesses in Oklahoma, added that the compact was crafted to include language that it would automatically renew for two reasons.

“We did it that way on purpose because it was so difficult to put together in the first place. It took over a year to negotiate. And there was some concern also that tribes might come back with negotiations to lower the fees. My thought was to keep it locked in,” he said.

The governor has identified Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter as the state’s lead in any negotiations that might take place, and on Monday deferred questions to Hunter. Alex Gerszewski, a spokesman for the attorney general, said a previously released statement remains accurate. “(Hunter) “is the lead on coordinating a meeting between the state and the tribes. The attorney general and the governor look forward to a mutually constructive and beneficial dialogue with tribal leadership. As with all negotiations, Attorney General Hunter believes they are most successful when we proceed in a manner that respects their dynamic and delicate nature. Therefore, there will be no further comment on the negotiations from the Attorney General’s Office or the Governor’s Office until further notice,” the statement said.

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