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Gov. Stitt sues GOP lawmakers after veto overrides

Abi Ruth Martin
The Oklahoma Legislative Service Bureau
Senate Pro Tem Greg Treat and House Speaker Charles McCall talk ahead of the State of the State address on Feb. 6, 2023.

Gov. Kevin Stitt’s vetoes of a pair of compacts with the state’s tribal nations by Oklahoma’s legislature will not stand. Now Stitt is suing Oklahoma’s legislative leaders, saying a veto override pushed beyond the legislature’s legal powers.

On Monday, the Oklahoma House of Representatives overrode Stitt's veto of a compact extension of state-tribal tobacco compacts until the end of 2024 involving tobacco sales, by a vote of 72 to 16.

The House and Senate had previously overridden a similar veto over a state-tribal motor vehicle compact bill.

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.

Later that day, Stitt filed a lawsuit against Senate Pro Tem Greg Treat and House Speaker Charles McCall, asking the Oklahoma Supreme Court to void those compact extensions.

“We need the Supreme Court to let us know who has the authority,” Stitt said at a press conference Monday. “Does the governor have the authority to negotiate the compacts or does the legislature have the authority to negotiate the compacts?”

Gov. Kevin Stitt holds up a copy of his proposed compact during a press conference Monday announcing his lawsuit against fellow Republican lawmakers.
Gov. Kevin Stitt holds up a copy of his proposed compact during a press conference Monday announcing his lawsuit against fellow Republican lawmakers.

Why did Stitt veto the compacts in the first place?

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.

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

The bills "purport 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.

Stitt expressed concern that the language in the legislature’s compact extensions could let tribes put more land into trusts, exempting businesses on that land from paying taxes to the state.

The compact did offer a 50-50 split but included language that would have redefined what is Indian Country. Something only the US Congress can do.

William Norman represented some of the tribal nations Stitt addressed in his letter. He said tribes were not interested in negotiating those terms.

“I think most tribes viewed that as a substantive change,” Norman said. “So there was a disconnect between, you know, the message from the governor's office that said nothing's changing.”

Here's the exact language Norman is referring to:" The provisions of this Compact shall establish and govern the rate of taxation and payment of taxes to the Nation and the State on the retail sales of cigarettes and other tobacco products in the Nation’s Indian Country as defined herein, i.e., as lands owned by the Nation and/or its members which are held in trust by the United States, or which are owned by members of the Nation and are subject to restricted title. Such lands are hereinafter referred to as “Compact Jurisdiction,” when said retail sales are made by the Nation. Nothing contained herein

Shall impair the ability of the Oklahoma Tax Commission to regulate cigarette manufacturers, importers, wholesalers, distributors, distributing agents, jobbers, or warehousemen (“Wholesalers”); provided that such regulation shall not interfere with the rights of the Nation under this Compact."

Senate Pro-Tem Greg Treat hit back at the governor in a written statement.

“These compacts in particular weren’t new, they weren’t unique in any way, they simply kept the exact same language as before to give him an opportunity to try and do the right thing by working with the tribes to renegotiate the compacts, while ensuring the state didn’t lose millions in revenue. He has once again failed Oklahoma. Today, history is repeating itself with the announcement of this lawsuit. I’m confident his intentions will meet the same fate as we have unfortunately witnessed, and paid for, in the past."

“By overriding these vetoes, the legislature gave the governor another avenue and opportunity to negotiate in good faith, as we have done repeatedly. He has never accepted or appreciated our efforts and has turned his back all four million Oklahomans, the legislative process and Oklahoma’s tribal partners, costing the state millions in legal fees. This zero-sum game he is playing is a losing strategy and I hope Oklahomans and my fellow lawmakers are paying careful attention.”

How will the governor and tribal nations move forward?

Stitt and the tribes have had a rocky relationship since he was elected. The 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.

“I have been negotiating and put this in front of [the tribes] for the last two months at the same financial terms as they had last year,” Stitt said. “They've refused to sign it. So they have gone around the governor.”

Tribal nation negotiators say the sticking point isn't about their contribution, but rather how the governor is trying to define what is and isn't Native land.

But despite his stated frustration that the tribes wouldn’t negotiate with him, Stitt repeatedly expressed his own unwillingness to budge on his compact language.

“I will not give an inch,” Stitt said. “Will I do the exact same compact that we've had in place since Governor Walters, Henry, Fallin and Keating: a 50-50 split on tobacco in tribal stores? Absolutely. That's what I've offered right here. But I will not change the language on my compact.”

Stitt 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.

Stitt also repeated some falsehoods during his press conference-one saying that tribes aren't paying tolls because of their license plates

“We have lost $4.7 million [because] we can't read tribal license plates,” Stitt said. They're not in our system. That means they're driving on our turnpikes without paying the the toll that everybody else does.”

Tribal Nations respond

Last week, Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. released a statement saying this is “unequivocally false."

“At no time did anyone from [the state] contact us with concerns about Cherokee Nation tags as it transitioned to a new ‘PlatePay’ system,” Hoskin said in the statement. “If there are any problems accessing Cherokee Nation tag information the state government’s agencies are the source of the problems, and the source of potential solutions.”

Tribal leaders applauded the actions by the legislature.

“The issues that our shared communities face can no longer wait to be addressed while we waste time and taxpayer money on pointless legal battles,” Muscogee Nation Principal Chief David Hill said in a statement. “The message should be clear now, it's time to work together."

Choctaw Nation Chief Gary Batton sent a statement to the media saying he was also pleased with Monday's house vote.

"Throughout the regular session and after, Oklahoma’s Legislature has made one thing very clear: They understand the importance of cooperation between the state and sovereign tribal nations, and they acknowledge the benefits working together provide for all Oklahomans,” Batton said. “We thank the Senate and the House for their willingness to collaborate, and for their endurance in correcting Gov. Stitt’s errors.”

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Allison Herrera covered Indigenous Affairs for KOSU from April 2020 to November 2023.
Robby Korth joined KOSU as its news director in November 2022.
Graycen Wheeler is a reporter covering water issues at KOSU as a corps member with Report for America.
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