Oklahoma has the second-highest share of tribal citizens of any state, which helps shape the fabric of our state’s culture and communities. This year, the Oklahoma legislature demonstrated this influence by including and valuing Native Oklahomans and tribal leaders in state policy solutions this session. The 2023 legislative session included a handful of significant bills that recognized tribal governments as self-governing, sovereign entities within the state. These measures respected that tribes are responsible for the health, safety, and well-being of their respective citizens.
Lawmakers supported tribal-state bills with nearly unanimous bipartisan support, but were met with some opposition from the governor’s office. While lawmakers overrode some of these vetoes, much work is needed to advance fiscally responsible tribal-state compacts. Lawmakers demonstrated including and valuing indigenous Oklahomans during the 2023 legislative session, and they should continue to exemplify what sovereign-to-sovereign relations with Tribal nations can do for Oklahoma.
Tribal-state compact bills will increase revenue for both tribes and state
With tribal-state compacts set to expire at the end of the year for 14 tribes, Sen. Roger Thompson, R-Okemah, introduced Senate Bill 26 and Rep. Kevin Wallace, R-Wellston, introduced House Bill 1005 in the Joint Committee on Appropriations and Budget (JCAB) to restore and extend tribal-state compacts on tobacco (SB 26) and motor vehicle registration and licensing (HB 1005) through December 31, 2024.
Tribal-state compacts are agreements between Tribal nations and the state to split tax money. The governor vetoed both bills, but lawmakers overwhelmingly overrode the veto. This veto override recognized that tribal-state agreements have benefited both the state and tribes by increasing Oklahoma tax revenues and increasing tribal and non-tribal economic activity in the state.
More than half of Oklahoma’s 38 federally recognized tribes collect and split tobacco sales taxes with the state through compact agreements. For instance, during the fiscal year ending June 30, 2022, the state received $56.8 million from tribal-state tobacco compacts alone. Extending the compacts allows for a vital revenue source for the state to continue. The legislature recognized that the governor’s efforts to renegotiate compacts unfairly would diminish future tribal-state relations. This year, many of our state leaders intervened in the governor’s continued fight against tribal sovereignty and unwillingness to compromise in order to renegotiate compact terms. Lawmakers and their constituents recognize that both tribes and the state benefit when tribal relations are upheld and tribal economies thrive.
Well-crafted tribal-state policy helps all Oklahomans thrive
Oklahoma’s Tribal nations have a substantial impact on the lives of everyday Oklahomans, including their respective tribal citizens, as legislation filed about tribal health, Indian education, freedom and protection of cultural identity, public safety, and compacts show. SB 299, a bill that was heavily advocated for through a shared community effort led by the Oklahoma Council for Indian Education, extended the Oklahoma Advisory Council on Indian Education within the State Department of Education through July 1, 2026. It also transitioned the appointment authority of nine appointees of its 18-member council from the governor to other tribal and state lawmakers. Constituents sent more than 38,000 emails to urge lawmakers to support the legislation by overriding the governor’s veto. This ultimately helped lead to the passage of SB 299 and reminded us that at the core of policy formation and bill passage are the people’s voices.
Another positive bill was SB 429, also known as the Tribal Regalia Bill, which protects students who wish to wear their tribal regalia at graduation ceremonies for public and charter schools, technology centers, colleges, and universities. This was a huge win for Indian Country and Oklahoma students to honor their cultural heritage. This bill provides clarity for schools like Elgin — which permitted one Native student to wear an eagle feather but no beads on their cap — and the Broken Arrow School District, which is being sued for violating rights to free exercise of religion and freedom of speech when school officials attempted to forcefully remove a sacred eagle plume from a Native student’s cap. The Tribal Regalia Bill will protect Native students’ right to celebrate their successes without sacrificing their tribal identity.
|SB 267||Sen. Ally Seifried (R)||Adds a cardiometabolic disease expert and two tribal health experts to the State’s Advancement of Wellness Advisory Council, one member representing Urban Indian Health and one member representing a federally recognized tribe that operates a tribal health system.||VETOED|
|SB 299||Sen. Roger Thompson (R)||Changes appointment authority of the Oklahoma Advisory Council on Indian Education to the Speaker of the House of Representatives and President Pro Tempore of the Senate from a list of nominations submitted by the elected tribal leaders in the state.||BECAME LAW|
|SB 429||Sen. John Montgomery (R)||Allows students to wear tribal regalia at school functions, such as graduation.||BECAME LAW|
|HB 1027||Rep. Ken Luttrell (R)||State-tribal gaming through Model Tribal Gaming Compacts to legalize sports betting in the state. Following the compact fee schedule, 12% of revenue would be deposited in the Oklahoma Higher Learning Access Trust Fund and 88% would be deposited into the Education Reform Revolving Fund.||STILL ACTIVE|
|HB 1077||Rep. Ken Luttrell (R)||Creates a statewide Kasey Alert for critically missing adults (helps address the Missing and Murdered Indigenous People’s epidemic).||BECAME LAW|
|HB 2115||Rep. Amanda Swope (D)||For the State Department of Education to develop certain professional learning opportunities and to develop and/or integrate school curriculum related to Native American history and culture for students in certain grades.||STILL ACTIVE|
|HB 1005X||Rep. Kevin Wallace (R)||Tribal-state agreements; enacting law to offer supplemental compact terms to affirm and extend existing agreements pertaining to motor vehicle registration and licensing||BECAME LAW|
|SB 26X||Sen. Roger Thompson (R)||Tribal-state agreements; affirming and offering supplemental compact terms; enacting law to offer the restoration of tobacco taxation compacts.||BECAME LAW|
The Native American caucus supports intergovernmental cooperation
The Native American Caucus is a bipartisan organization comprised of both Republican and Democrat lawmakers. Rep. Ken Luttrell, R-Ponca City, and Rep. Ajay Pittman, D-Oklahoma City, serve as the caucus’s co-chairs. The caucus meetings cover a number of shared priority areas for tribal citizens. Regular attendees also included Indian Country advocates and tribal governmental affairs staff/liaisons. The standing monthly caucus meetings served as a forum to discuss bills impacting Indian Country. Those discussions frequently included whether to support or oppose legislation based upon the best interest of Indian Country.
The Native American Caucus gave lawmakers an opportunity to explain their bills, provide updates, and have open dialogue with advocates through the legislative session. For example, Rep. Luttrell invited advocates working on behalf of missing and murdered indigenous people to speak to the caucus about public safety in tribal communities and the need for statewide Kasey Alerts (HB 1077) for critically missing adults, similar to the existing alerts used for children and elders. Their assistance helped HB 1077 pass, which made Oklahoma one of four states with both a specific state liaison and a statewide alert system. The caucus also provided a forum for intergovernmental cooperation among the state and a number of Tribal nations. Other topics discussed by the caucus included ensuring the availability of broadband internet connections in indigenous communities and other tribal-specific updates shared by various Tribal nations.
Oklahoma’s future success depends on strengthening relationships with Tribal nations
Legislators have shown that Oklahoma can maintain sovereign-to-sovereign relationships with Tribal nations. However, for the state and tribes both to reach their full potential in tribal-state relations and policy formation, will require the governor to choose a cooperative government-to-government relationship. An example of the governor’s antagonist relationship with the tribes can be found in his most recent special session call, which asked lawmakers to create a statutory trigger law that would eliminate any state tax that a federal or state court holds to be “inapplicable to any person by virtue of their race, heritage, or political classification.” This position is a blatant disregard for federal Indian law and tribal sovereignty, and the legislature wisely did not take action on this issue during October’s special session.
Tribes in Oklahoma have made it clear that they prefer to preserve and advance tribal-state cooperation. Lawmakers have recognized that the governor’s attack on compact renewals and efforts to push against Tribal nations does not benefit Oklahoma. Legislators have recognized that tribes help drive our interconnected economies and made it clear that they support government-to-government policy solutions with Tribal nations in Oklahoma. They should continue to lead by example in honoring tribal sovereignty and working with Tribal nations to better support all of us.