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Law & Principles

Jonathan Small | August 4, 2023

Many Indians don’t pay turnpike tolls—meaning non-Indian drivers pay more

Jonathan Small

Is it too much to expect that everyone who drives on an Oklahoma toll road should be expected to pay? Sadly, that is not occurring today.

Due to flaws in existing state-tribal compacts, and a willful lack of enforcement mechanisms, individuals driving with tribal car tags are often able to evade payment of turnpike tolls.

Because information on tribal tags, such as the home address of the car owner, is not always provided to the State of Oklahoma, many individuals with tribal tags now simply drive down state toll roads without paying. According to one official at the Oklahoma Turnpike Authority (OTA), the millions of dollars gifted to those unregistered tags is then shifted onto the fees paid by all other, non-Indian drivers.

OTA officials recently highlighted this issue in a meeting with state lawmakers.

Regarding Pikepass tolls, for years tribal tags were not a problem because people with a tribal plate who didn’t have a Pikepass had to pull over and pay cash.

But under the new “plate pay” system, the state electronically monitors traffic and sends bills to those without a Pikepass, and unregistered tribal tags have become a huge problem. Often, tribes do not report information to the state, so those with tribal tags have no fear of getting a bill. (The “plate pay” system has reduced accidents at toll booths, made the system more efficient, and lowered unnecessary government personnel costs, however.)

Since May 15, the Oklahoma Turnpike Authority has tracked unregistered tags on the turnpike system.

A single vehicle with a Muscogee (Creek) Nation tag failed to make $687 in toll payments during that time, while an individual with a Cherokee Nation tag failed to pay $670 in tolls over those two months.

Based on April 2023 data, the Oklahoma Turnpike Authority estimates drivers with tribal tags will evade payment of more than $10.8 million in turnpike fees per year.

Only three tribes have compacts with the state of Oklahoma authorizing tribal car tags—the Cherokee, Choctaw, and Chickasaw—and only two run that process through a local state tag office. There were 132,192 tribal tags issued to individuals in those three tribes in 2022.

In theory, non-compacting tribes may issue tribal tags only to members of the tribe who live on tribal allotment land or live within the historic reservation area of the issuing tribe. But not all tribes abide by that.

The Muscogee (Creek) Nation offers illegal tribal tags to any member of its tribe living anywhere in Oklahoma. So do the Absentee Shawnee.

DPS estimates there are as many as 570,146 vehicles on Oklahoma roads with (often illegal) car tags issued by non-compacting tribes.

Lawmakers should support efforts to address these problems. Fundamental fairness says all Oklahomans should be treated the same.

Jonathan Small President

Jonathan Small

President

Jonathan Small, C.P.A., serves as President and joined the staff in December of 2010. Previously, Jonathan served as a budget analyst for the Oklahoma Office of State Finance, as a fiscal policy analyst and research analyst for the Oklahoma House of Representatives, and as director of government affairs for the Oklahoma Insurance Department. Small’s work includes co-authoring “Economics 101” with Dr. Arthur Laffer and Dr. Wayne Winegarden, and his policy expertise has been referenced by The Oklahoman, the Tulsa World, National Review, the L.A. Times, The Hill, the Wall Street Journal and the Huffington Post. His weekly column “Free Market Friday” is published by the Journal Record and syndicated in 27 markets. A recipient of the American Legislative Exchange Council’s prestigious Private Sector Member of the Year award, Small is nationally recognized for his work to promote free markets, limited government and innovative public policy reforms. Jonathan holds a B.A. in Accounting from the University of Central Oklahoma and is a Certified Public Accountant.

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