In north central Oklahoma, in the tiny town of Red Rock, a small Native American tribe is preparing for big changes to the Oklahoma casino industry.
"We're really looking to the future. You know, what the gaming atmosphere is going to look like in 5-10 years from now," said Otoe-Missouria Tribe Chairman John Shotton.
The Otoe-Missouria tribe has only about 3,200 citizens and they own and operate five casinos. They also are one of only four tribes to sign controversial, new gaming compacts with the state of Oklahoma and Governor Kevin Stitt.
"This is a very competitive market in the state. So, for us, we have to find our niche, and it became a business decision," Shotton said.
The compact signed in April, and permitted by the federal government just last month, allows the Otoe-Missouria tribe to initially pay a lower rate to the state. It also gives them the opportunity to build new casinos in nearby counties and they can also offer new forms of gaming, such as house-banked table games and sports betting. Down the line, the state would get a bigger cut of the revenue.
But the new compacts are getting considerable push back from other Republican lawmakers, tribes and even the state's Attorney General. They all say Governor Stitt lacked the authority to make the agreement, creating a heated legal and political battle.
"This entire process was unnecessary. It's a waste of time. It's a waste of tax payer resources," said Oklahoma Indian Gaming Association Chairman Matthew Morgan.
The OIGA is the trade group that advocates for Oklahoma tribes in the gaming industry.
"We don't think Governor Stitt has the authority to actually offer them that agreement," Morgan said.
The OIGA has been critical of the way the Governor approached tribes about new gaming compacts last July. In an op-ed, Governor Stitt proposed that Oklahoma tribes should pay the state more money for the exclusive rights to operate casinos in the state. He also asserted the 15-year compacts signed by the tribes in 2004, expired at the end of 2019.
"When you get a Monopoly or a golden ticket to operate a casino, that's worth something," said Governor Stitt. "I would not be doing my job as Governor if I simply auto-renewed a bad agreement in perpetuity and that's what some people are pushing me to do."
Three of the state's largest tribes, the Chickasaw, Choctaw and Cherokee Nations pushed back. They filed a federal lawsuit against the Governor asking a judge to decide whether the compacts expired or renewed. More tribes have since joined in and a decision on whether they have been operating illegally could come soon.
"What Oklahomans need to understand is their Governor was sued in the state by certain tribes saying no, no we want a contract that goes on forever. I just don't believe that that's accurate," Stitt said.
But the litigation doesn't end there. Oklahoma Senate President Pro Tem Greg Treat and House Speaker Charles McCall, who are both Republicans, also filed a petition against the Governor in a separate case. They are arguing since the agreement with the Otoe-Missouria tribe includes sports betting, it is not legal because the legislature never approved. Attorney General Mike Hunter agrees. A referee in the Oklahoma Supreme Court heard oral arguments from both sides in that case this month.
"I believe in both cases that the justices have enough material in front of them to issue an opinion," said Morgan.
The OIGA suspended the memberships of the Otoe-Missouria Tribe, along with the Comanche Nation over the new compacts, but that didn't stop the Kialegee Tribal Town and the Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians from signing their own new compacts. Ultimately it's up to the courts to decide if they'll last long term. Until then, both the Governor and OIGA are standing firm.
"It’s been a process that has worked great for over 15 years. I'm not sure why he thinks he has a better system," Morgan said. "I'll be glad when it's over. Hopefully the court will rule soon."
"It's nothing against the tribes, but as your Governor I have to be fair with all 4-million Oklahomans," Stitt said.
And far away from the capitol and the courts, up in Red Rock, the Otoe-Missourians say they're excited for their future and they feel they now have more stability.
"We know what our rates are going to be. We know what our floor is going to look like and we know we have opportunities for growth," said Shotton.