Oklahoma Department of Transportation commissioner questions McGirt ruling’s impact on construction projects

OKLAHOMA CITY, Okla. — Quick Facts:

  • A dispute over an exit ramp leading to a McClain County casino in central Oklahoma could change how the state and tribal governments work together on road construction projects, an Oklahoma Department of Transportation commissioner claimed Monday.
  • ODOT Commissioner T.W. Shannon said the Oklahoma attorney general’s office needs to better clarify the relationship between ODOT and tribal governments, and if the McGirt ruling means that any projects done with state and tribal stakeholders needs to get approval from the governor’s office first.
  • A resolution formally asking Attorney General Mike Hunter to step in failed by a vote of 7-2, but Shannon said questions still exist.
  • This issue is just one of many growing issues on the civil side of the law involving taxes and what the state can do on tribal property. Closer to Tulsa, the Oneta Power Plant’s owners are now disputing in a lawsuit that they don’t have to pay property taxes to Wagoner County because they have been deemed to be on tribal lands.

OKLAHOMA CITY-- A commissioner on the Oklahoma Department of Transportation’s board said Monday that the historic Supreme Court “McGirt Ruling” is now putting into question who on behalf of the state can make agreements with tribal governments about future construction projects.

The recent ruling established that when Congress established Oklahoma as a state, it did not dis-establish the Indian reservations with in it. Meaning, tribal governments never lost sovereignty over their lands. The ruling was primarily for criminal matters, but now civil legal matters are also starting to pop up because of questions over how tribal boundaries impact things from taxation to jurisdiction over legal matters. Commissioner T.W. Shannon said he was concerned the McGirt ruling gave Governor Kevin Stitt an extra say over the ODOT commissioners about projects that receive both state and tribal funding. The question arose after it appeared that a flyover exit ramp on I-35 in McClain County that was slated to go directly from the interstate to the Riverwind Casino in southern portions of Norman was now on old after the governor’s office began to inquire about the project with Oklahoma Transportation Secretary Tim Gatz.

“If I’m understanding McGirt correctly, every project in eastern Oklahoma, not just those with tribal money, need to be focused on,” Shannon said.

The governor’s office in a statement to FOX23 said it had issues with the exit ramp proposal at I-35 and State Highway 9 West because it appeared to be a pet project of the Chickasaw Nation to get people off the interstate and directly to their casino, and that is why they are going back to the drawing board for solutions to the entire junction.

“Governor Stitt strongly believes that the needed improvements to the I-35 interchange with Highway 9 West should be made in a way that benefits all 4 million Oklahomans. The Governor will always fight to ensure taxpayer dollars are invested in projects that serve the people of Oklahoma and not pet projects for special interests,” Governor Stitt’s Communications Director Carly Atchison said.

Shannon said the governor has been hostile towards all tribal government actions since they wouldn’t come to the table early on in his administration to renegotiate the compact between the state and the tribes on how much revenue they would share with the State of Oklahoma, and the McGirt decision only further inflamed the governor’s view towards the tribes.

“With this governor’s history on assessing what’s in the best interest of Oklahoma when it relates to tribes, that office might be the last place I go to seek advice,” Shannon said to Gatz on Monday.

Shannon and his colleague ODOT Commissioner James Grimsley were the only two of the nine commissioners seeking a resolution that stood by the current McClain County project and also asking for Attorney General Mike Hunter’s opinion on the ODOT Commission’s role on projects that involve both tribal funds and tribal lands in the wake of the McGirt decision. Those resolutions failed.

Shannon said the Chickasaw Nation thought it had a trust-worthy handshake agreement in place to fix the traffic congestion issues in the area, but now they don’t know if they need to work with ODOT or the governor’s office. He is concerned that the governor’s office is using the McGirt ruling to subvert the ODOT commission’s authority in awarding contracts and approving projects, especially because a tribe is involved. Other commissioners said they were open to looking at the project again, and they felt that there was no ill-will to act on at this time.

This issue is just one of what is becoming a growing number of civil issues related to the McGirt Ruling. Closer to Tulsa, the power plant in Oneta filed an argument in court that it does not owe Wagoner County property taxes since it is in tribal boundaries.

Attorney General Mike Hunter is asking the U.S. Supreme Court to further clarify the scope of last summer’s ruling in hopes of settling some of these issues, especially some of the things that have popped up on the civil side of the law. There are some who feel the McGirt ruling only applied to criminal law and not civil matters.