OKLAHOMA CITY — Commissioner T.W. Shannon on Monday grilled Gov. Kevin Stitt’s Transportation Secretary Tim Gatz about a delayed road improvement that was a partnership between the Chickasaw Nation and the state.
Gatz said the Oklahoma Department of Transportation is evaluating a proposed interchange improvement at Oklahoma 9 and Interstate 35, which serves the Norman area. The improvement would alleviate congestion in the area that houses the Riverwind Casino, owned by the Chickasaw Nation.
The Chickasaw Nation agreed to put up $10 million of the $17 million project and donate 8.3 acres for right of way valued at $1.5 million.
The state has a history of partnering with tribes on road projects. Between 2010 and 2020, there have been 23 highway projects with tribal participation, to which the tribes contributed $29 million.
Gatz last month, under questioning by Shannon about the project delay, said in light of the U.S. Supreme Court’s McGirt decision, which found the Muscogee (Creek) Nation’s reservation had never been disestablished by Congress for purposes of criminal law, he was consulting with the Governor’s Office on how to proceed on tribal-state road projects.
Under questioning Monday by Shannon, Gatz said the entire interchange, not just a portion of the project, needed to be re-evaluated.
Gatz said a change of this type to a significant project is uncommon, but it does occur. He also said the agency’s commitment to the project still exits and a potential tribal partnership is certainly possible.
Under questioning by Shannon, Gatz said the governor has not ordered a change in how the agency deals with tribal partnerships.
Shannon, appointed to the panel by House Speaker Charles McCall, R-Atoka, questioned why Gatz was consulting with Stitt’s office when the Oklahoma Transportation Commission has the power to determine road projects in the state’s 8-year-plan. The interchange in question is in the 8-year-plan.
Gatz said he wasn’t asking permission from Stitt’s office, but felt it necessary to seek insight.
Shannon said considering Stitt’s history with the tribes, “that office might be the last place to seek advice.”
Stitt and the tribes have had a strained relationship after the governor unsuccessfully sought to increase the exclusivity fees that tribes pay the state for Class III gaming.
“If we continue down this road, we will lose partners,” said Shannon, a member of the Chickasaw Nation and CEO of the Chickasaw Community Bank, which is owned by the tribe. “People are not going to partner with people who don’t keep their word.”
Shannon, a former speaker of the Oklahoma House, said the state has a long history of not keeping its word to tribal governments.
The Transportation Commission voted against seeking an attorney general’s opinion requested by Shannon on what legal authority Stitt’s office had to deviate from the 8-year-plan. The vote was 2-7.
The Transportation Commission also voted 2-7 against a Shannon-proposed resolution saying political influence should not be involved in the 8-year-plan.
McCall called the votes “perplexing.”
“It appears to be abandoning its commitment to the eight-year plan, which would be a major shift warranting further discussion,” the House speaker said.
“Gov. Stitt strongly believes that the needed improvements to the I-35 interchange with Highway 9 West should be made in a way that benefits all 4 million Oklahomans,” said Carly Atchison, a Stitt spokeswoman. “The Governor will always fight to ensure the taxpayer dollars are invested in projects that serve the people of Oklahoma and not pet projects for special interests.”
Under a recent change in state law, Stitt hires and fires Gatz, who also serves as head of the Oklahoma Department of Transportation. Gatz also serves as head of the Oklahoma Turnpike Authority.
Stitt has five appointees on the nine-member Oklahoma Transportation Commission.