OKLAHOMA CITY — After a federal judge Monday ordered Oklahoma’s governor and the five Native American tribes suing him into mediation in an effort to crack the impasse over gambling compacts, a local tribe has been invited to jump on board.
The Quapaw Nation this week filed a motion seeking intervention in a lawsuit against the state, joining the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Citizen Potawatomi and Muscogee (Creek) nations, according to a news release from the tribe. The tribes sued Gov. Kevin Stitt seeking a judicial declaration that the state’s gambling compacts with 35 tribes automatically renewed — the Republican governor maintains that they expired.
If the tribe's motion to intervene is accepted, the Quapaw Nation will effectively join the other tribes at the mediation table, said Chairman John l. Berrey.
"We were asked by the other tribes to intervene," Berry said Thursday. "Our expectation is that we'll get that motion at the first part of next week. The judge seems like he's trying to expedite this case, and we're ready to help out any way we can."
The tribes and the governor will have until March 31 to complete — or substantially complete — mediation and try to reach a consensus. Timothy D. DeGiusti, chief United States district judge in the Western District of Oklahoma, ruled that negotiations within the framework of mediation would provide the means for efficient initial case management.
Both sides are prohibited from publicly discussing the status or conduct of the mediation or characterizing the various positions.
“We appreciate the opportunity to get these proceedings underway and look forward to working with the court to resolve the renewal dispute,” said Sara Hill, Cherokee Nation attorney general in a statement on behalf of the tribal legal team.
The governor welcomes the mediation order, said Baylee Lakey, a Stitt spokeswoman.
“The state’s legal team is committed to engaging in good-faith negotiations that will achieve a productive solution for the state’s future, for its four million residents, and for all of Oklahoma’s sovereign tribes,” she said in a statement.
In a statement, Matthew Morgan, chairman of Oklahoma Indian Gaming Association, said he’s pleased to see that the judge moved quickly to set a timeline for the first steps in resolving the dispute with Stitt. They look forward to a timely decision, he said.
“As always, tribal governments are bound by the compact, and will continue to abide by it,” he said. “The tribes are making exclusivity fee payments for January 2020, and we are upholding our responsibilities.”
The compacts allow tribes to offer gambling in exchange for paying the state exclusivity fees ranging from 4% to 10%. Those fees have generated more than $1.5 billion over the past 15 years, officials report.
Stitt has said he’s willing to renew for 15 more years, but he wants tribes to pay more for exclusivity rights. He also wants resolution language added to compacts to clearly specify what will happen the next time the compacts are up for renewal.
Tribal leaders have said they’re open to renegotiating, but not until Stitt acknowledges the compacts automatically renew. They sued Stitt in December, arguing that his stance regarding the legality of a subset of casino gambling — known as Class 3 — created uncertainty and was viewed as a threat to employees and vendors.
The lawsuit does not ask a judge to address the revenue-sharing aspect of compacts.
House Minority Leader Emily Virgin, D-Norman, said she’s not sure what else there is for the sides to discuss because the main sticking point is automatic renewal — not rates. She said she hopes something good will come from mediation.
“The two sides still seem pretty far apart on that, and I’m not sure they’re going to find common ground in mediation,” she said. “But I think that the tone and how the governor has conducted himself has really put the tribes on defense, and I don’t think that they’re very inclined to work with this governor, and I don’t blame them."
But Jonathan Small, president of Oklahomans for Fairness, said residents are learning “what a sweetheart deal” Oklahoma casinos have compared with the average Oklahoman and most other industries.
The nonpartisan, nonprofit organization wants to bring fairness to public policy by providing education to residents. The group is currently focused on casino industry policies.
“What matters most is not any particular step in the legal process, what matters is the current deal that casinos have is extremely unfair,” Small said.
Janelle Stecklein covers the Oklahoma Statehouse for CNHI's newspapers and websites. Reach her at email@example.com.
Globe Digital Editor Joe Hadsall contributed to this report.