OKLAHOMA CITY — A federal court judge Monday ordered Oklahoma’s governor and the five Native American tribes suing him into mediation in an effort to crack the continued impasse over gaming compacts.

The Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Citizen Potawatomi and Muscogee (Creek) nations and Gov. Kevin Stitt will have until March 31 to complete — or substantially complete — mediation and try to reach a consensus on whether the state’s tribal gaming compacts automatically renewed Jan. 1.

The Chickasaw Nation operates WinStar World Casino and Resort near Thackerville, Oklahoma, just north of Gainesville. With about 600,000 square feet of gaming area, WinStar ranks among the largest casinos in the world, according to several roundups listing large casinos by square footage.

The five tribes sued Stitt seeking a judicial declaration that the state’s gaming compacts with 35 tribes automatically renewed. The Republican governor maintains that they expired.

Timothy D. DeGiusti, chief United States district judge in the Western District of Oklahoma, ruled that negotiations within the framework of mediation would provide the means for efficient initial case management.

Both sides are prohibited from publicly discussing the status or conduct of the mediation or characterizing the various positions.

“We appreciate the opportunity to get these proceedings underway and look forward to working with the court to resolve the renewal dispute,” said Sara Hill, Cherokee Nation attorney general in a statement on behalf of the tribal legal team.

The governor welcomes the mediation order, said Baylee Lakey, a Stitt spokeswoman.

“The state’s legal team is committed to engaging in good-faith negotiations that will achieve a productive solution for the state’s future, for its four million residents, and for all of Oklahoma’s sovereign tribes,” she said in a statement.

In a statement, Matthew Morgan, chair of Oklahoma Indian Gaming Association, said he’s pleased to see that the judge moved quickly to set a timeline for the first steps in resolving the dispute with Stitt. They look forward to a timely decision, he said.

“As always, tribal governments are bound by the compact, and will continue to abide by it,” he said. “The tribes are making exclusivity fee payments for January 2020, and we are upholding our responsibilities.”

The compacts allow tribes to offer gaming in exchange for paying the state exclusivity fees ranging from 4 to 10%. Those fees have generated more than $1.5 billion over the last 15 years, gaming officials report.

Stitt has said he’s willing to renew for 15 more years, but he wants tribes to pay more for exclusivity rights. He also wants resolution language added to compacts to clearly specify what will happen the next time the compacts are up for renewal.

Tribal leaders have said they’re open to re-negotiating, but not until Stitt acknowledges the compacts automatically renew.

Tribal leaders sued Stitt in December, arguing that his stance regarding the legality of a subset of casino gaming — known as Class III — created uncertainty and was viewed as a threat to employees and vendors.

The lawsuit does not ask a judge to address the revenue-sharing aspect of compacts.

House Minority Leader Emily Virgin, D-Norman, said she’s not sure what else there is for the sides to discuss because the main sticking point is automatic renewal — not rates.

“The two sides still seem pretty far apart on that, and I’m not sure they’re going to find common ground in mediation,” she said.

Still, Virgin hopes something good will come from mediation.

“But I think that the tone and how the governor has conducted himself has really put the tribes on defense, and I don’t think that they’re very inclined to work with this governor, and I don’t blame them,” she said.

But Jonathan Small, president of Oklahomans for Fairness, said residents are learning “what a sweetheart deal” Oklahoma casinos have compared to the average Oklahoman and most other industries.

The nonpartisan, nonprofit organization wants to bring fairness to public policy by providing education to residents. The group is currently focused on casino industry policies.

“What matters most is not any particular step in the legal process, what matters is the current deal that casinos have is extremely unfair,” Small said.

Stecklein covers the Oklahoma Statehouse for CNHI’s newspapers and websites. Reach her at jstecklein@cnhi.com.

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