March Editorial Winner

This is serious

WAYNE TROTTER, The Countywide & Sun

Whether you’re on the side of the city or the four local tribes, you need to be aware of how serious this disagreement between the City of Shawnee and the Native Americans really is. If the tribes prevail, things will go on as usual. But if the city comes out on top, it will result in a sea change in the way things are done in Oklahoma. It’s that simple … and that serious.
City Commissioner Keith Hall, who is clearly on the side of the city, put it in perspective at the latest meeting between the tribal leaders and city officials on Monday. Mr. Hall said that if the city prevails, the tribes won’t be looking at remitting the mere three percent in sales taxes the city says it wants. Instead, the tribes are likely to have to meet the same standards that apply outside Indian Country. In Pottawatomie County, that means a sales tax of 8.5 percent.
Why? Because this much is close to certain: If the city goes to court and wins, there will be a long, long line of governments anxious to get on this new gravy train. That line will include other cities, counties that levy sales taxes, and the state as well. Only the federal government, which so far hasn’t dipped into the sales tax treasure trove, will be absent.
And if that happens, it will dramatically affect all Indian tribes in Oklahoma. Traditionally, those tribes have been shielded from complying with state and local tax laws by the doctrine of tribal sovereignty. To simplify that situation — and state much of the Native American case — if the tribe is operating a business on trust land, that business has been exempt from local and state taxes. If Shawnee prevails in court, that theory would no longer apply.
Just because lawyers for one side or the other say something is true doesn’t make it true. If this goes to court, both sides will have competent lawyers and arguing points that on the surface are very reasonable. But the concept of tribal sovereignty is rooted in years of practice and is tied in with an existing body of law and agreements (treaties) between various tribes and the federal government. The tribal position in this dispute cannot be dismissed lightly. It will be strong in court. The question is whether it will be strong enough.
We are not taking sides in this but we do want to note the strengths beyond sovereignty in the tribal position. These governments are providing benefits and assistance to their members and many of those members would have to turn to the state if that assistance were denied. They also have been generous in many local and area charity drives. They are major employers and their employees include members of all races. They make a huge contribution to the culture and character of our state.
Society in Oklahoma is multifaceted. If Shawnee wins and others follow as can be expected, tribal governments will be shaken to their core. The taxes they would be giving up would be next-to-impossible to replace without putting tribal businesses in noncompetitive positions. Yes, the tribes will still have casinos but those revenues likely would have to be diverted to make up for losses elsewhere.
From the tribal standpoint, that’s how serious this is.

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