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Tribes seek share of turnpike revenue

Budget & Tax

Ray Carter | May 22, 2024

Tribes seek share of turnpike revenue

Ray Carter

Because many tribal car tags are effectively unregistered with the state of Oklahoma, drivers with tribal tags have run up millions of dollars in unpaid tolls on state turnpikes in recent months that cannot be collected.

Now a tribal official says tribes are willing to end that problem—but only if the Oklahoma state government agrees to divert potentially millions of dollars in turnpike revenue to tribal governments, effectively negating any financial benefit from the collection of tolls on drivers with tribal tags.

“If we’re going to share our information, then we need to talk about sharing revenue,” said Sharon Scott, president of the Oklahoma Intertribal Tax Association and the executive director of the Seminole Nation’s business and regulatory commission.

Scott made her comments at a recent meeting of the legislative Joint Committee on State-Tribal Relations.

Currently, only two tribes—the Choctaw and Chickasaw—have signed compacts with the state of Oklahoma that guarantee Oklahoma law enforcement and turnpike officials have ready access to registration information for vehicles with tribal tags.

The recent meeting of the Joint Committee on State-Tribal Relations was convened to approve those two tribes’ latest car-tag and tobacco compacts.

Gov. Kevin Stitt has highlighted the problems created by effectively unregistered tribal license tags, noting that in the past eight months alone cars with Cherokee tags have run up a collective $5.63 million in unpaid tolls and large sums have gone uncollected from drivers with all other forms of tribal tags aside from the Choctaw and Chickasaw tribes.

Under the proposal floated by Scott, tribes that share tribal-tag information with the Oklahoma Turnpike Authority would receive a cut of collections from state turnpikes, even though the tribes do not pay to maintain turnpikes and the diversion of funds would effectively force Oklahoma drivers to pay higher tolls.

If tribes were given a share of turnpike-toll collections, it could exacerbate transportation-funding issues already caused by the tribes’ practice of issuing tribal license plates, based on comments made during the joint meeting.

State Sen. Brent Howard, R-Altus, questioned Scott on how the Seminole Nation allocates money generated by issuance of its tribal car tags.

“On the issuance of those tags, is there any funds that are being remitted to the state for general roads, registration, taxes, everything else that is agreed to in these (Choctaw and Chickasaw) compacts or other compacts?” Howard asked.

Scott simply replied, “No.”

She also acknowledged that at least six Oklahoma tribes do not share license-registration information with Oklahoma state government.

She said two of those six tribes “fundamentally do not want to share” that information with the state. Other tribes have “pulled back” and are no longer sharing registration information, she said.

Scott conceded that creates “a public safety issue.”

That’s another issue Governor Stitt has highlighted, saying it puts law-enforcement officials in danger during routine stops when they do not know whether a driver has outstanding warrants or if a car has been used in the commission of a crime.

In July 2023, the head of the Oklahoma Department of Public Safety told state lawmakers that the lack of registration information on many tribal tags placed law-enforcement officials in danger during traffic stops and that organized crime figures were starting to exploit the registration loophole.

Ray Carter Director, Center for Independent Journalism

Ray Carter

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.

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