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Oklahoma Senate overrides Stitt's vetoes of tribal compact bills

Jackie Fortier
StateImpact Oklahoma

The Oklahoma Senate is overriding Gov. Kevin Stitt’s veto of two compacts with tribal nations.

On Monday, the Oklahoma Senate overrode Stitt's veto of the renewal of two compacts involving tobacco sales and vehicle registration, by a vote of 34 to 7.

Senate Bill 26X will extend the state-tribal tobacco compacts until the end of 2024 while HB 1005X will extend the motor vehicle registration to the same date.

This is the second attempt the Senate has made to override the Governor's veto, after both the House and Senate overwhelmingly voted to approve them during the regular legislative session that ended in May.

The governor vetoed both bills after the session ended.

The House voted to override the veto on HB 1005X the vehicle registration in mid-June and sent it on to the Senate to take up during the special session. On June 26, the Senate failed to garner the 32 votes needed to override the governor's veto pen. It came up one vote short.

In his veto message, Stitt said the bills were a violation of statutory law and were a poor deal for the state.

The bill "purports to extend a single motor vehicle licensing compact without any regard for whether the decade old compact is a fair deal for the State moving forward. Both because this Bill amounts to a circumvention of the executive’s authority to negotiate compacts and because it is not in the State’s best interests, I must veto it," Stitt wrote.

Still, some action needs to be taken in the opposite chamber. The House has already approved overriding Stitt’s veto of the vehicle tax sharing agreement, so that goes into effect immediately. House members are expected to reconvene later this month to also approve the tobacco tax sharing agreement.

Legislative Service Bureau Photography

Navigating a complicated relationship

Stitt and the tribes have had a rocky relationship since he was elected. The Senate's renewal of the tag and tobacco compacts are just the latest issues where the Oklahoma legislature has stepped in to negotiate a way forward in an era where some feel the Governor has grown hostile toward the tribal nations.

The Governor said he respects the tribal nations and that he simply wants a better deal for the state on the amount of money the state collects on the vehicle registration and tobacco compacts.

At the end of June, a month after Stitt vetoed both compacts, he reached out to 14 tribal nations with a letter to negotiate a contract with him.

Osage Nation is one of those tribes. Principal Chief Geoffrey Standing Bear said he's not interested in new compact negotiations under the Governor's terms.

He remembers when the tobacco tax went to the Supreme Court and was being debated in Oklahoma.

"That whole series of battles was part of the larger war of reestablishing our sovereignty that had been so brutally crushed in the late 1800s and through the allotment acts up to 1906," Standing Bear said.

It’s unclear what would happen without a compact.

Standing Bear, who graduated from law school in the 1980s, said he's of the view that, "all my career that the United States Congress never granted the authority for this kind of incursion invasion by the states."

The bigger picture

On July 14, the Inter-Tribal Council of the Five Tribes released a statement calling on the Senate to override the veto.

The Governor's actions have been perceived as hostile by the tribes.

Recently, Stitt released a videosaying he wants, "one set of rules for Oklahomans." He's referring to the recent decision in Hooper v. the City of Tulsa, in which the city claimed it had the right to enforce traffic laws against tribal citizens on reservation land by citing a pre-statehood law known as the Curtis Act. The 10th circuit court of appeals rejected Tulsa's argument. Stitt responded by posting an image that claimed the tribal citizens could speed and not receive a fine or punishment.

Stitt also pointed to a new website that falsely claims that some people are being treated differently because of their race. Tribal Nations are not ethnic groups, but rather political entities.

A fact check shows that several of the claims on Stitt’s website and in his promotional video for it are false.

Stitt also released a second video claiming that tribal nations were lying to citizens over the terms of the tag and tobacco tax compacts.

In recent weeks, Senate Pro Tem Greg Treat reported that the Governor has been putting pressure on senate members to not show up or vote no.

Senate Pro Tempore Greg Treat
Legislative Service Bureau
Senate Pro Tempore Greg Treat

"He is working, especially the Senate members, extremely hard…encouraging people to either vote no or not show up," Treat said.

Treat said that members of the Senate should show up and vote their conscience.

"But show up and do your job."

Sen. Nathan Dahm, (R-Broken Arrow) voted no.

"Having the compacts can be beneficial and helpful to the state," Dahm said. "I do think that some of the terms need to be renegotiated and reconsidered going forward."

He said the initial compacts were a good start, but that there definitely needs to be some changes made to the compact language themselves.

Treat said if the compacts aren't renewed, it will be a $50 million dollar budget hole they have to fill.

Stitt has said the state isn't getting a fair deal. Currently, there is a 50-50 split on revenue on both compacts. The state collects the revenue and sends 50% back to the tribal nations. Not all tribal nations in the state have tobacco compacts, and not all tribal nations sell tobacco. Currently, only the Choctaw, Chickasaw and the Cherokee Nation have vehicle registration compacts.

This isn't the first veto override Oklahoma's legislature has taken up related to state-tribal nation relations. Earlier this year, Stitt vetoed a bill that would secure student's rights to wear tribal regalia during their graduation ceremonies. Stitt said that should be left up to local districts, while critics said this left students open for discrimination. The legislature eventually overrode the tribal regalia bill and it has become law.

 Sara Hill, Cherokee Nation Attorney General, speaks during the "ᏣᎳᎩ: Wherever We Are, Aftermath of McGirt Edition" virtual program in 2022.
Cherokee Nation
Sara Hill, Cherokee Nation Attorney General, speaks during the "ᏣᎳᎩ: Wherever We Are, Aftermath of McGirt Edition" virtual program in 2022.

Cherokee Nation Attorney General Sara Hill is hopeful the Senate will override Stitt's veto and says if they're not, both parties are on uncertain terrain, and it could lead to more litigation.

"I'm not privy to everything that goes on in other tribes, but I know in my own tribe it's just been a complete stonewall situation… no meaningful discussions or negotiations with the governor's office at all," Hill said.

Hill says this is about defining what is Indian land in the wake of the McGirt decision and Stitt's resistance to it. The Cherokee Nation, she says, has always been interested in negotiating in good faith, but Stitt's team has never reached out to the governor, according to Hill.

The tribal-state tobacco compacts were enacted in 1992 after bitter battles over state sales tax collections on tobacco sales, which were offered at a lower rate when sold by tribal nations on Indian land, which includes reservation and restricted land.

A 1995 Tulsa World article said the state was seeing the benefits from such compacts. At that time, the compacts paid the state nearly $2.5 million.

The future of Oklahoma’s relationship with tribal nations

Treat said the relationship between the state and tribal nations is important. He said he doesn't want to see the state head towards bitter litigation.

"Things were at a fever pitch as far as rhetoric and also just relations in the early nineties," Treat said in an interview earlier this month.

He doesn't want to see the tribes headed in that direction.

"I think a lot of us agree with the end goal of having uniformity and all 4 million Oklahomans being treated equally…but we also have to live within the legal confines and the reality of the decisions of the Supreme Court and the 10th Circuit more recently, and have to figure out a path forward that both benefits the 39 tribes in Oklahoma and the state of Oklahoma," he said.

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Allison Herrera covered Indigenous Affairs for KOSU from April 2020 to November 2023.
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