Law & Principles
Ray Carter | June 23, 2023
Tribe uses vehicle revenue for political activity
Even though state-tribal compacts on vehicle registration and car tags ultimately result in millions of dollars being diverted from Oklahoma state government to the control of a small group of tribal government leaders, defenders of the compacts often claim the agreements benefit the state because the money is used for education and transportation.
But Cherokee Nation budget documents obtained by the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs indicate that the tribe at least considered, and may have used, vehicle revenue for political activity.
The Cherokee Nation acknowledges that some money generated by its motor-tag compacts with the state of Oklahoma has been used for electoral activity, but the amount of money tribal officials say was spent and the uses made of that money differ dramatically from the amounts and uses outlined in a tribal budget document provided by a whistleblower.
In a statement, the Cherokee Nation Communications Department said the Cherokee Nation “did not use motor vehicle compact funds for political contributions,” but acknowledges that some compact funds were used for “get out the vote” efforts.
The Cherokee Nation Communications Department said the tribe’s motor vehicle compact requires that 38% of all fees and taxes collected under the Cherokee Nation Motor Vehicle Code must go to schools, another 20% must go to roads and highways, and 5% goes to law enforcement. The communications department said the Cherokee Nation Tribal Council has devoted larger amounts than required, giving 20% to local law enforcement and 43% to education.
However, the Cherokee Nation concedes that “still leaves some revenue to fund the operations of the tax commission and other programs of the Cherokee Nation.”
The “other programs” included a “get out the vote” campaign for fiscal year 2023. The Cherokee Nation Communications Department said that $18,000 was spent on that effort, which was characterized as paying for “tee shirts, promotional items and other materials needed for voter registration booths at community events.”
However, a fiscal year 2023 Cherokee Nation “comprehensive budget narrative” document provided by a whistleblower appears to conflict with claims from the tribe. The document indicates that the tribal government called for spending $850,245 on the “get out the vote” effort. The document described the program as not only an effort to encourage people to vote, but also as a program that “funds political donations for the Cherokee Nation, which gives our tribal government the opportunity to financially support and build relationships with political candidates who are or will be good representatives of Cherokee citizens and our interests. This program also funds voter and civic engagement outreach, like tribal and state voter registration and voter mobilization efforts.”
A Cherokee Nation FY2023 budget-request form identifies vehicle tax collections as a source of funding for those political efforts. The document indicates that officials proposed using at least $226,311 in vehicle taxes for the tribe’s political activities in FY23, and the document indicates that $850,245 in vehicle tax collections were used for that purpose in the preceding 2022 budget year.
The budget-request form document regards the period from Oct. 1, 2022, to Sept. 30, 2023.
The Cherokee Nation Communications Department also said spending on “get out the vote” efforts should not be characterized as political spending.
“Such expenditures are not political expenditures of any description, but governmental expenditures, and the 24% increase in voter turnout in our recent tribal election demonstrates the effectiveness and utility of the campaign,” the Cherokee Nation Communications Department statement said.
As of publication, the Cherokee Nation had not responded to a follow-up question about the discrepancy between the numbers cited in the budget documents and the figures highlighted by the tribe’s communications department in its statement.
Budget Documents Offer Important Context for Compact Discussion
The Cherokee Nation budget documents offer important context for the ongoing effort by state lawmakers to extend, without renegotiation, tribal compacts on vehicle tags and tobacco.
Gov. Kevin Stitt has said the compacts need to be renegotiated to ensure the areas covered by the compacts are limited to land held in trust for a tribe, as was the practice for the past two decades.
The U.S. Supreme Court’s 2020 ruling in McGirt v. Oklahoma effectively declared that most of eastern Oklahoma lies within the boundaries of historic reservations that were never formally disestablished by Congress, despite a century of practice to the contrary.
Tribal government leaders are expected to claim that all land within their historic reservations, about 42% of the state, is now considered “Indian country” because of McGirt, which would exponentially increase the areas subject to compact agreements and potentially increase the diversion of state tax dollars to tribal coffers by millions.
For example, the Seminole Nation has 372 acres of land held in trust, which is 0.58 square miles. But the tribe’s historic reservation, impacted by the McGirt decision, includes most of Seminole County, which has 633 square miles.
As a result, the tobacco compacts crafted by the Legislature could increase the area covered by the tobacco compact by nearly 109,037 percent for the Seminole Nation [excluding a portion of the county included in the historic reservation of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation].
With Stitt calling for the compacts to include language limiting their application only to trust lands, state lawmakers have acted to cut the governor out of the compact process, despite state law that places the chief executive in charge of compact negotiations. Lawmakers approved legislation that authorizes compacts that do not contain language limiting their scope to trust land.
House Bill 1005X would automatically renew any state-tribal compact regarding motor vehicle licensing or registration and license tags, preventing the governor from renegotiating the compacts.
HB 1005X declares that the “agreements have benefited all parties by reducing intergovernmental disputes and increasing revenues available for roads, bridges, schools, and other valuable community infrastructure.”
The legislation does not list political spending among the benefits generated by the agreements.
Although Stitt vetoed the bill, members of the Oklahoma House of Representatives voted to override his veto on a 74-11 vote.
Oklahoma Ethics Commission records show that many lawmakers and political action committees, from both political parties, have received financial contributions from the tribal entities that benefit from the compacts.
However, it is not currently known if, or to what degree, state lawmakers have received tribal donations created by vehicle revenue or which lawmakers may have specifically benefited.
Members of the Senate are expected to reconvene in special session next week to vote on an override of Stitt’s vetoes.
Director, Center for Independent Journalism
Ray Carter is the director of OCPA’s Center for Independent Journalism. He has two decades of experience in journalism and communications. He previously served as senior Capitol reporter for The Journal Record, media director for the Oklahoma House of Representatives, and chief editorial writer at The Oklahoman. As a reporter for The Journal Record, Carter received 12 Carl Rogan Awards in four years—including awards for investigative reporting, general news reporting, feature writing, spot news reporting, business reporting, and sports reporting. While at The Oklahoman, he was the recipient of several awards, including first place in the editorial writing category of the Associated Press/Oklahoma News Executives Carl Rogan Memorial News Excellence Competition for an editorial on the history of racism in the Oklahoma legislature.