OKLAHOMA CITY — Three Native American tribes Tuesday sued Oklahoma’s governor, asking a federal judge to weigh in amid the continued impasse over gaming compacts.

In a joint statement announcing the federal lawsuit, tribal leaders with the Cherokee, Chickasaw and Choctaw nations said their lawsuit, which was filed in federal court, aims to put an “end to the uncertainty” that Gov. Kevin Stitt has attempted to cast over tribal gaming operations ahead of Jan. 1.

The tribes are requesting a judicial declaration that the gaming compacts between the state and Native American tribes automatically renew Jan. 1.

“Gov. Stitt has made comments about ‘uncertainty that exists’ regarding Class III gaming after Jan. 1, threats to our casino vendors and their livelihoods and demands for redundant audits,” said Chuck Hoskin Jr., Cherokee Nation chief, in a statement. “We have little choice but to ask a federal judge to confirm the compact’s automatic renewal on Jan. 1.”

The lawsuit asks a judge to decide whether the compacts automatically renew.

Stitt remains at an impasse with 35 of the state’s tribes over whether the compacts automatically renew. The Republican governor contends they expire Jan. 1.

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.

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

“The Governor’s stance on the gaming compact has created uncertainty and has been seen as a threat to our employees and our business partners,” said Gary Batton, Choctaw Nation chief, in a statement. “We see this legal action as the most viable option to restore the clarity and stability the tribes and Oklahoma both deserve by obtaining a resolution that our compact does automatically renew.”

In a letter sent to Stitt on Tuesday, the three tribal leaders — Hoskin, Batton and Chickasaw Nation Gov. Bill Anoatubby — said they have never refused to discuss rates, but have insisted that negotiations conform with the federal law and the provisions of the compacts.

“Unfortunately, your ongoing dismissal of this threshold framework has made progress impossible, and your words and threatened actions leave us no reasonable alternative but to file suit,” the men wrote.

In a statement, Stitt said he was disappointed that a number of Oklahoma tribes — led by the Chickasaw, Cherokee and Choctaw nations — did not accept the state’s offer for a three-person arbitration panel to resolve the dispute outside of court.

“This was a capstone action to their numerous refusals to meet with (the) state and begin negotiations on the Model Gaming Compact to ensure a win-win for all parties by the end of this year,” Stitt said. “I was elected to represent all four million Oklahomans, and I will continue to be laser focused on an outcome that achieves a fair deal and is in the best interest of the state and its citizens.”

Stitt also announced that two tribes — the Kialegee Tribal Town and the United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians — signed an eight-month compact extension with the state. Neither tribe currently operates any casinos in Oklahoma, officials said.

“These extensions will enable the parties to negotiate a compact that better accounts for the differing needs of tribes throughout the state and the state’s interests in preserving the substantial exclusivity without a cloud of legal uncertainty,” he said. “(The state) offered an extension, with no strings attached, to all tribes that operate casinos in the state, and my door continues to be open for more tribes to join who are worried about impending uncertainty.”

In a tweet, House Minority Leader Emily Virgin, D-Norman, called the litigation an “inevitable development.”

“I’m disappointed that it’s come to this, but I support the tribes in their court filing to resolve the issue,” Virgin said.

An official with Oklahoma Indian Gaming Association, meanwhile, said it would be business as usual New Year’s Day at the more than 130 casinos across the state.

“While we prefer negotiation to litigation, the Federal court is now the only reasonable alternative to bring legal certainty to this issue,” Anoatubby said in a statement. “We remain hopeful we will continue to have a productive and mutually beneficial relationship with the State of Oklahoma once we have resolved this issue.”

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

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