Laugh or cry ” your choice. A key, fast-growing industry in Oklahoma operates largely under rules of its own creation, with oversight by its own employees, for the benefit of some, but not necessarily the majority of state residents. That industry is comprised of gambling casinos built and operated by Oklahoma’s American Indian tribes.
As sovereign nations, each of Oklahoma’s federally recognized tribes has its own government, its own laws and its own approach to securing tribal prosperity. As independent as they are, however, most tribes share the vision of great wealth to be earned through legalized gambling, and many are bringing that vision to reality. Last year, Oklahoma gambling revenues reached $2.2 billion, with less than 10 percent of the total from sales of state lottery tickets. That equates to nearly $618 per man, woman and child.
The total number of Indian casinos in the state has grown to nearly 100, with several more under construction and a myriad of others being planned. In late November, the Osage Nation held ground-breaking ceremonies for a casino near Ponca City ” the tribe’s seventh gambling emporium. The Quapaw Tribe is building a $200 million casino and hotel where the borders of Oklahoma, Kansas and Missouri meet. The Shawnee Tribe is having a harder time gaining trust status from the Bureau of Indian Affairs for a proposed casino and hotel on Interstate 35 in north Oklahoma City, because the tribe has no apparent historical ties to the land. However, tribal leaders believe they can make a good case for an exception to the BIA regulations.
Thousands of jobs have been the most immediate benefit from the proliferation of casinos for both American Indian and non-Indian Oklahomans. Indian Country Today cited the Chickasaw Nation, which has 17 casinos and nearly 6,000 employees, and the Cherokee Nation, with almost 4,000 employees in seven casinos, as two of the state’s largest employers. In addition, contractors and construction workers have profited from the casino-building boom.
State tax coffers have gained a small percentage of gambling revenues from the tribes, but tax collections have never matched projections. Part of the problem is that casinos have two kinds of gaming machines. Bingo-based “Class II” machines comprise half of the 45,000 machines in Oklahoma casinos and gaming parlors, yet the state is not entitled to collect any revenue from them. “Class III” machines, which are more like the familiar slot machines found in casinos around the world, provide the state with 6 percent of net revenues, after winning gamblers have been paid. Sometimes the classifications of specific machines are in question.
One long-term question is whether Oklahoma and its municipalities will collect enough from the casinos to pay for services to accommodate patrons ” for example, new roads and highway repairs; law enforcement, fire fighting and emergency medical response as needed; and treatment programs for compulsive gamblers. Some tribes seem to be more cooperative than others in negotiations to help plan and pay for future needs.
I have additional questions, but I don’t expect answers for decades. How many casinos are enough? What are the odds that newer, bigger, fancier casinos will put older, smaller ones out of business? How will that affect the members of the unlucky tribes that own unsuccessful casinos and residents of the areas in which they’re located? In other words, at what point does opening a casino become a gamble, and for whom?
Murphy is a freelance writer who lives in Norman.