By 2007 Indian gaming in Oklahoma was an established $2.4 billion industry. Nationwide, Indian gaming grossed $27 billion. Most of Oklahoma's tribes had entered into legally binding casino compacts with the State, and Indian gaming was thriving. This had not always been the case.
The Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (IGRA) of 1988 established the legal parameters of Indian gaming nationwide, but its benefits had not yet reached Oklahoma. In the 1990s, as much of national Indian Country was entering the gaming industry (gross revenue from Indian gaming nationwide was $54.6 million in 1995), Oklahoma tribes, with the exception of bingo, were effectively shut out of gaming. At the same time, they were engaged in political, legislative, and judicial lobbying to achieve casino-style gaming in the state.
The IGRA established a framework of regulations to permit tribal governments to operate specific kinds of gambling. Three classes of gaming were established, and a regulatory structure was tied to the class of games a tribe offered. Although on the surface tribal sovereignty is protected by federal law, in reality state governments are given a considerable role in Class III or casino-style games. This provision of the law allowed Oklahoma's state government to assert a veto over such games as slot machines, banked card games, craps, keno, and roulette. In order for tribes to offer these games, they are required to a compact with the State. Oklahoma refused to do so.
While the Cherokee and Choctaw Nations offered thriving bingo halls, (games considered Class II and permitted under IGRA), the Oklahoma's governors refused to sign compacts except for those providing for pari-mutuel horse racing, a Class III game. Pari-mutuel racing had been legal in Oklahoma since 1983. The State signed compacts with fifteen tribes, allowing for simulcasting of horse racing at Oklahoma tracks. The Choctaw Nation acquired Blue Ribbon Downs in Sallisaw in November 2003, and the Cherokee Nation purchased the Will Rogers Downs in Claremore in March 2004.
Oklahoma tribes continued to lobby for casino gaming but often met resistance. Several tribes that operated Class II games, claiming they were electronic bingo games, received Notices of Violations (NOVs) from the National Indian Gaming Commission. The commission ruled the tribe's games were illegal Class III gambling and were halted. At the same time, the three United States Attorneys in Oklahoma acted to limit, and in some cases shut down, tribal gaming.
The tribes’ continued campaign for more gaming and the increased demand for more and varied types of gaming led the legislature to take up the issue. Governor Brad Henry strongly advocated for expanded gaming. Senate Bill 1252, legislation that would, among other things, expand tribal-State Class III compacts beyond horse racing, passed the legislature in 2004. It was placed on the ballot as State Question 712, Legislative Referendum 335. The referendum permitted electronic games at three of Oklahoma's racetracks. For the tribes, the significant part of this measure established a model Class III compact. The new compacts will in be force for fifteen years. Compacting tribes would also be assessed an annual fee to be paid to the State of Oklahoma. In November 2004 the referendum received nearly 60 percent of the vote. Four years later ninety-four casinos with 41,771 gambling machines existed in Oklahoma. These rank, respectively, first and second in the nation. Thirty of Oklahoma's thirty-seven federally recognized tribes had Class III compacts with the State. Seven tribes had three compacts, and eleven had two.
Although Oklahoma is home to nearly one-third of the nation's American Indian population, it has more casinos than any other state. Twenty-eight states have Indian gaming. After the passage of State Question 712, tribes began upgrading Class II games to Class III casino-style gambling. Under IGRA regulations, casino profits may be used for only five purposes, all of which are designed to benefit tribes and tribe members: to fund tribal government operations or programs; to provide for the general welfare of the Indian tribe and its members; to promote tribal economic development; to donate to charitable organizations; or to help fund operations of local government agencies. Oklahoma tribes allocated their $2.4 billion in gaming profits according to federal law.
BIBLIOGRAPHY: Indian Law Journal 77 (February 11, 2006). W. Dale Mason, “Indian Gaming: Tribal Sovereignty and American Politics,” Sovereignty Symposium XVIII (N.p.: 2005). W. Dale Mason
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