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Federal judge: Gov. Stitt wrong on tribal gaming compacts' expiration date

Gov. Kevin Stitt lost again in court on Tuesday as a federal district judge in Oklahoma City ruled against his interpretation of the state’s tribal gaming compacts in force since 2004.

The decision follows on the heels of a state Supreme Court ruling that Stitt exceeded his authority in signing new gaming compacts with the Comanche and Otoe-Missouria tribes and the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in McGirt v. Oklahoma, which upheld tribal sovereignty in criminal matters.

Stitt coupled Tuesday’s decision with McGirt to project a grim future for Oklahoma.

“We face a question of constitutional proportions about what it means to be the state of Oklahoma and how we regulate and oversee all business in our state,” he said in a written statement.

Stephen Greetham, chief general counsel for the Chickasaw Nation, one of the nine tribes that brought the suit, viewed the decision quite differently.

“This is a good day for Oklahoma. It’s a good day for the tribes,” Greetham said. “This brings back stability and certainty to a critical pillar of Oklahoma’s economy.”

Tuesday’s ruling by U.S. District Judge Timothy D. DeGiusti grants summary judgment in favor of the tribal governments that joined in a lawsuit filed on Dec. 31. The suit asked the court to decide whether the gaming compacts expired at the end of 2019, as Stitt claimed. DeGiusti said they did not.

In his nine-page opinion, DeGiusti wrote that “the state strains in its arguments” and that he was “not persuaded.”

“We’ve been saying from the get-go that this is not a complicated issue,” said Greetham. “The words say what the words say. Gov. Stitt has attempted to inject a level of uncertainty and confusion into our compacts, but it’s just not supported by the plain text of the agreement.”

Stitt notified the tribes a little over a year ago that he believed that the compacts expired at the end of their original 15-year term at the end of 2019.

The tribes disagreed, pointing to a provision that automatically renews the compacts for a second 15-year term once the state has authorized Class III electronic gaming at race tracks.

Tracks in Oklahoma City and Claremore, both of which are now owned by tribal interests, have had such games for 15 years. Their licenses were most recently renewed by the Oklahoma Horse Racing Commission in October.

Apparently the Stitt administration did not realize until too late that its best chance of preventing the automatic compact renewal was to head off reissuing the race track licenses.

The administration argued in its pleadings that reissuing the track licenses was mere “governmental action,” whereas it should have involved “legislative action.” DeGiusti said that was too fine a splitting of hairs.

Tuesday’s ruling is not necessarily the end of the matter. DeGiusti gave the two sides until Aug. 7 to detail any further issues. A spokesman for Stitt said Tuesday afternoon that he didn’t know whether Tuesday’s ruling will be appealed.

While some tribal leaders said Tuesday that they are willing to negotiate revisions to the existing compacts, Stitt has made it clear that he wants to tear them up and start over.

Each of the current compacts is identical, but Stitt says he wants agreements individualized for each tribe. His compacts with the Comanche and Otoe-Missouria indicated a willingness to make short-term concessions, at least with some of the smaller gaming tribes, in exchange for the potential of long-term growth.

Some observers think Stitt’s strategy is to crack tribal unity by addressing simmering grievances of the smaller tribes. Oklahoma has more than 30 gaming tribes, but the Chickasaw, Choctaw, Cherokee and (Muscogee) Creek account for 70% of the gaming revenue.

“In my first six months (in office), I traveled across the state listening to tribal leaders and to leaders from many sectors of Oklahoma’s economy about these compacts,” Stitt said Tuesday. “What I heard and what I learned is that only a few tribes were receiving most of the benefit from gaming; the one-size-fits-all approach to the Model Gaming Compact was clearly broken.”

Tribes pay the state 4% to 10% of net revenue in exchange for exclusive rights to operate certain Class III games. Stitt thinks they should be paying more, either through higher rates or by expanding the types of Class III gambling allowed.

Stitt has also made vague references to wanting more oversight of the tribes’ business arrangements with their vendors.

Stitt’s office has spent more than $1.5 million in legal and other fees in the fight over gaming compacts, including attorneys hired to defend against a Dec. 31 federal lawsuit filed by several tribes.

Curtis Killman contributed to this story.

December 2019 video: Tribes decline compact extension proposed by Stitt

Tribal gaming 101: What you need to know about Oklahoma tribal gaming

Tribal gaming 101: What you need to know about Oklahoma tribal gaming

Painted BLM message prompts push for 'Back the Blue' art from Tulsa Republicans

If someone can paint “Black Lives Matter” on a city street, why not “Back the Blue”?

That’s what Bob Jack and a few of his Republican friends would like to know. Jack, chairman of the Tulsa County Republican Party, recently sent a letter to City Councilor Ben Kimbro and the Mayor’s Office seeking information on the application process for painting a sign on the street.

“A group has approached me with a plan to paint on a city street in large letters “BACK THE BLUE” and “BABY LIVES MATTER,” Jack wrote. “As you are aware, the city did not intervene in the painting of “BLACK LIVE(S) MATTER” on Greenwood, just north of Archer, and the group is requesting the same right to voice their opinion.”

Jack said Tuesday that his hope is to have a rally and “have some people there that back our police officers, and while we are there, we’re going to bring some paint, and we’re going to put on the street ‘Back the Blue.’”

Jack mentioned Denver Avenue and Fifth Street as possible locations for the street painting but said no decision has been made on that.

Not coincidentally, city councilors are scheduled to discuss street signs Wednesday at their 10:30 a.m. committee meeting. The discussion is expected to focus on the city’s procedures for permitting street signs and the legal ramifications and legal liabilities of allowing a public right of way to be used for political messaging.

Cities across the nation have been grappling with the issue since “Black Lives Matter” signs began popping up painted on streets in the wake of the George Floyd killing in Minneapolis.

Complicating the issue in Tulsa is the fact that the “Black Lives Matter” sign on Greenwood Avenue was never permitted by the city.

“Never heard from the city. Never for permission, and never for after the fact, nothing,” said Ryan Rhoades, the artist and activist who organized the overnight paint job.

Rhoades said he decided to paint the 250-foot-long yellow sign after seeing other cities across the country with “Black Lives Matter” signs painted on streets. He did not consult the city beforehand.

“I was like, with us having Black Wall Street here and Juneteenth and Trump coming to town, we just seem like the most likely city to do this next,” Rhoades said.

He said he worked with dozens of volunteers contacted through social media to “subversively” get the sign painted on the eve of Juneteenth. The effort, he acknowledged, included not always being forthright with a police officer who stopped by to ask what was going on.

“He thought we were just doing chalk and told us we were fine, and we didn’t see any more cops the rest of the night,” Rhoades said. “He just saw the chalk; we had the paint hidden.”

Rhoades described the paint as a “water-based latex acrylic” that was intended to be “somewhat temporary.”

“But temporary is a relative word,” he said. “It hasn’t really faded much at all.”

Generally speaking, individuals or organizations wishing to mark a street apply for a special events permit that must be approved by the director of the Streets and Stormwater Department and the City Council. The permit allows for the street to be blocked off so the sign can be placed on the right of way, and it limits signage to hand-held chalk or tape. Applicants can apply to mark the street with other temporary materials.

The City Council’s work on street signs is not likely to end Wednesday. Another local artist, Tony Williams, said Tuesday that he would like to place street signs or murals on 40 blocks of the historic Greenwood District, site of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre.

“We see all the attention that the mural down there now was getting,” Williams said. “I was like, ‘This would be cooler if people were actually down here for the history instead of just this Black Lives Matter mural.’

“We don’t want people to get away from the history of what happened here.”


Gallery: ‘Black Lives Matter’ painted overnight on street in Tulsa’s Greenwood District

Gallery: 'Black Lives Matter' painted overnight on street in Tulsa's Greenwood District

Speed limits will be raised to 80 mph on portions of some toll roads across Oklahoma

OKLAHOMA CITY — The Oklahoma Turnpike Authority on Tuesday raised speeds from to 80 mph from 75 mph on rural segments of five existing turnpikes.

The panel also voted to establish an 80 mph maximum speed limit on the Kickapoo Turnpike, which is scheduled to open later this year in eastern Oklahoma County.

The sections of roadway with raised speed limits total 104 miles and include:

The Turner Turnpike from mile marker 203 to mile marker 216, between Bristow and Sapulpa, 13 miles.

The Muskogee Turnpike from mile marker 2 to mile marker 33, between Muskogee and Broken Arrow, 31 miles.

The Cherokee Turnpike from mile marker 3 to mile marker 28, Locust Grove to near Oklahoma 10, 25 miles.

The Indian Nation Turnpike from mile marker 93 to mile marker 104, between Oklahoma 9 and Interstate 40, 11 miles.

The H.E. Bailey Turnpike Norman Spur from mile marker 102 to mile marker 107, 5 miles.

The Kickapoo Turnpike from mile marker 130 to mile marker 149, between Interstate 40 and the Turner Turnpike, 19 miles.

Existing speed limits on rural turnpikes such as the Will Rogers Turnpike, the main segment of the H.E. Bailey Turnpike, the Cimarron Turnpike and the Chickasaw Turnpike will not be changed.

The increased speeds will not become effective until new speed limit signs are posted, which could take several months.

Transportation Secretary Tim Gatz said the new speeds are considered maximums for ideal conditions. If the agency sees unfavorable results, it could ask the OTA to make adjustments downward.

The Oklahoma Transportation Commission will consider recommendations at its Monday meeting for maximum speed limit increases on segments of rural interstate highways maintained by the Oklahoma Department of Transportation.

House Bill 1071 set the stage for a study on speed limit increases of 75 mph on rural interstates and 80 mph on rural turnpikes.

The study considered roadway geometry, sight distance, collision history, traffic flows and existing speed patterns.

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Claremore Veterans Center sees 10 deaths of residents who tested positive for COVID-19

OKLAHOMA CITY — Ten residents at the Claremore Veterans Center have died after testing positive for COVID-19, state officials said Tuesday.

However, Oklahoma Department of Veterans Affairs Executive Director Joel Kintsel said the 10 may not have died as a direct result of contracting the respiratory disease.

“Although they previously tested positive, there is not necessarily an indication they passed away due to symptoms related to COVID itself,” Kintsel said.

“That is kind of a thing now. If you have tested positive at any point, it seems like it is counted as a COVID death, when in fact the symptoms may not actually add up to that, if you will.”

Officials discovered there was a problem at the facility on July 7, Kintsel said.

Since the first of the month, 62 residents have tested positive for COVID-19. Ten have died, and 18 have either moderate or severe symptoms, he said.

Another 34 were either asymptomatic or had mild symptoms, he said.

Three of those who tested positive have recovered.

In addition, 21 employees at the facility are in isolation at home after testing positive, he said.

“Based on our contact tracing, we believe the most likely source for the virus was an asymptomatic employee who at the time did not know they had the virus and unknowingly passed it on to a resident,” Kintsel said.

The center has had an alarming rise in COVID-19 cases, said Oklahoma Secretary of Veterans Affairs and Military Ben Robinson.

“In Rogers County, there has been essentially an uptick in COVID cases in terms of community spread and it seems like that also got into the veterans center there and happened there as well,” Kintsel said.

On March 14, the agency closed visitation at the centers, which was a tough decision to make because it meant separating loved ones from residents, Robinson said.

“While we believe we are now approaching a resolution to the current situation, as only two new positive tests have occurred over the last 72 hours, for the foreseeable future, all appropriate prevention and tracing measures will remain in place and isolation protocols in effect since March will continue,” Kintsel said.

A State Department of Health long-term care response team was deployed to the Veterans Center last week to conduct an assessment and did not issue any citations for violations, officials said.

The Claremore facility has 250 residents and 302 beds, Kintsel said.

Veterans centers in Ardmore, Clinton and Sulphur have not had positive cases, Kintsel said.

No other COVID-19-related deaths have occurred outside of the Claremore facility, he said.

The Lawton veterans center has one positive case and the resident has recovered, Kintsel said.

The Norman veterans center has one positive resident being cared for in house and one positive resident who has been hospitalized, Kintsel said.

The Norman facility previously had four positive residents who have all recovered, Kintsel said.

The facility at Talihina has had one positive case and the resident has recovered, Kintsel said.

The state has more than 1,200 beds for residents at its seven centers, Kintsel said.

“Out of this huge number of veterans we care for, we have only had 10 (who died),” Kintsel said.

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