Tribal sovereignty among the top issues facing Oklahoma governor and Legislature

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — Tribal sovereignty is expected to again be a top issue facing lawmakers and Gov. Kevin Stitt as they return on Monday to begin the 2024 legislative session.

Stitt, a Republican and himself a citizen of the Cherokee Nation, has had a contentious relationship with tribal leaders that began with a dispute during his first year in office over casino revenue and has worsened with conflict over agreements on tobacco sales, motor vehicle tags, taxes and criminal jurisdiction.

The governor, now in his second term, has been a frequent critic of expanded tribal sovereignty and of the landmark 2020 U.S. Supreme Court decision that determined state prosecutors lack criminal jurisdiction over certain crimes committed in Indian Country.

In an interview with The Associated Press last week, Stitt said his role is to represent all 4 million Oklahomans and not allow tribal citizens to have an unfair advantage. He believes that could happen if the Oklahoma Supreme Court rules in favor of a Native American woman who claims she doesn’t have to pay state income taxes because she lives and works on a tribal reservation.

“There’s no way I would be doing my job as governor if I said: ‘Oh, African Americans pay taxes, white people and Asians (pay taxes), but American Indians don’t,’” Stitt said. “It’s like I’m in a twilight zone having to explain this to people.”

Stitt will deliver his State of the State address to the Legislature on Monday and release his proposed spending plan for the fiscal year that begins July 1.

Last year the Legislature convened in special session to override the governor’s veto of a bill to extend agreements on tribal tobacco sales and motor vehicle tags and the issue is expected to surface again in the session beginning Monday.

Many lawmakers hope the relationship between the tribes and Stitt has thawed somewhat following a deal the governor reached last month with the Chickasaw Nation for a 10-year agreement.

“I see it as a very good indication that the state and the tribes will be able to work together,” said Sen. Brent Howard, chairman of the Joint Committee on State-Tribal relations.

Among the other issues lawmakers are expected to tackle is a possible income tax cut, a top priority for Stitt. The House approved a 0.25% reduction in the rate last week, but Senate leaders have said such a move is premature since final revenue numbers haven’t been released.

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