Indian tribes frustrated over tobacco tax compact negotiations with the state of Oklahoma

Saturday, September 27th 2003, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) _ Several Oklahoma Indian tribes expressed frustration Friday with negotiations between their tribes and the state of Oklahoma over tobacco tax compacts.

The tribes met in Tulsa for what they thought would be a negotiating session with Gov. Brad Henry's representatives.

But Lindsey Robertson, a University of Oklahoma law school professor who has been hired as outside counsel on the issue, and State Finance Director Scott Meacham did not attend the meeting in Tulsa, as expected.

``We were not invited either officially or nonofficially,'' Kym Koch, Henry's press secretary, told The Daily Oklahoman. ``We only heard about it just yesterday (Thursday).''

After talking with tribal leaders, Meacham said the whole thing was a ``miscommunication.''

``We've set up another meeting on Monday,'' Meacham said.

Meacham confirmed Friday the state has reached an agreement with two of the larger tribes but he declined to name them until an announcement on Monday.

Osage Nation Chief Jim Gray, one of 12 tribal chiefs and representatives from at least 20 tribes at the aborted meeting, said the ``posturing ... threatening'' by the governor does not make sense.

``Maybe they (the governor's representatives) didn't want to be on neutral territory,'' Gray said. ``His absence speaks volumes.''

Now, smoke shops pay the state 25 percent of the state's 23-cent tobacco tax. The governor is proposing the 25 percent to remain the same, but for the tribes to pay 100 percent of any future increase in tobacco taxes, of which half would be returned on a quarterly basis with interest.

Wayne Stull, a Delaware Tribe of Indians member, said the proposed compact would mean higher prices, which would put many shops out of business.

``They are trying to force the compact on us,'' Joe Brooks, chief of the Delaware Tribe of Indians, added. ``They don't have the authority.''

Brooks said the issue is about American Indian rights. He said he has ``beat the state'' before in the U.S. Supreme Court.

Gray believes the current compact is good for Oklahoma. He said the tribes are just trying to negotiate an agreement that's good for everyone. If the state is willing to sign the compact to run concurrent with the others, it would be possible to discuss other agreements on mutually beneficial economic issues, including _ but not limited to _ gambling, Gray said.

None would say what would happen after the current compact ends, but Gray said that synchronizing the compacts of the 34 tribes could be a ``win-win situation.''