Representing communities including Bethel Acres, Earlsboro, Johnson, McLoud, Shawnee and Tecumseh, Oklahoma House District 26 is home to thousands of tribal members and employees. Outgoing Representative Justin Wood, an ardent advocate of CPN at the statehouse, did not seek reelection this year and Democrat Nick Atwood and Republican Dell Kerbs are running to fill his seat on Election Day, November 8. We asked each about their motivations for running and views on the issues facing District 26, its constituents and tribes. Their responses have slightly edited for clarity.
Mr. Kerbs was unable to provide answers to the questions, but did provide the following statement.
Kerbs: “Shawnee is the place I love to call home. I have worked to build up our community. I understand the challenges of businesses in rural communities, the pressures facing Oklahoma families, and the factors that undermine public safety. My legislative interests will be to work to keep taxes low, eliminate needless regulation, and devote tax dollars to the areas where they can have a genuine, positive impact, such as roads and schools. My goals are to increase opportunity and enhance the quality of life for all.
“If elected state representative, I will emphasize easy access to constituents in House District 26. The door to my office will be open to all those I represent in office and calls will be returned when constituent questions or needs arise. My cell phone number is 609-0308.
“There will be issues where agreement is easy to find and others where we may land on different sides of an issue. Regardless, I will work to foster a strong working relationship with all communities in my district, including the Citizen Pottawatomi Nation. I believe agreement and consensus can be forged more often than not, but I understand those outcomes cannot occur without open communication and the continual exchange of information. So my message to the Citizen Pottawatomi Nation is the same message I give to all other groups. I will work to be a unifying voice for our district, and am ready to work with you to accomplish positive change.”
In addition to his answers, Atwood also provided a statement.
Atwood: “If elected as the next State Representative for District 26, I will work to represent all the citizens of House District 26, including the Citizen Potawatomi Nation. During my eight years working for Governor Brad Henry, I learned first-hand how important our tribal governments are and I recognize the importance of building relationships with tribal leaders. I believe that my experience gives me a unique ability to represent all citizens of our district, from day one.
“I was raised in Shawnee and am now raising my two children here. The same issues that affect working families affect me too. Our state legislature has been complacent with the standard of education and health care we are delivering in our state and that is simply unacceptable. I will use my experience working in state government, raising my own family and owning a small business right here in Shawnee to tackle the tough issues facing us all.
“I believe it is vital that we work together to create a strong education system for our children, a strong economy that provides quality jobs and a health care system that allows everyone access to medical treatment. I know that the Citizen Potawatomi Nation is a key player in creating this type of environment. We must partner together — state government, local government and tribal government — to move Shawnee, and all of Oklahoma forward.
“My door will always be open to hearing about the concerns and issues facing the individuals of this district. I hope to serve you, and the community that has given me so much.”
Why are you seeking this seat?
Atwood: “I am a product of public schools and both of my children go to public schools. It frustrates me seeing our teachers asked to do more with less each year. The status quo is simply unacceptable. Our treatment and funding of education is not the Oklahoma Standard. Education is the first step in curing many of our social ills. Investing in education is the greatest investment we can make as a state. Without a thriving educational system, businesses will not want to start, stay or relocate to Oklahoma and our children will want to move elsewhere instead of staying in our great state.
“A quote that has stuck with me for some time is that public service is the rent you pay for the space you occupy. I believe in and enjoy public service. Being a practicing local attorney, small business operator and having eight years of experience working in Governor (Brad) Henry’s administration, uniquely allows me, if elected, to represent the citizens of House District 26 effectively on day one in the Oklahoma State Legislature. I want to use my experience and abilities to ultimately do what is best not only for House District 26 but for Oklahoma.”
What is one specific issue you’ll focus on during this or the next legislative session that will be relevant to the people of House District 26?
Atwood: “Appropriately funding our education system is my primary focus. Our state has experienced multiple revenue problems throughout the years. Until we find a system that funds core government functions, our State will continue to struggle for stability.
“Each child deserves the opportunity to receive a truly great public education wherever they live. Until we stop cutting public education funding this will not be a reality. Since 2010, Oklahoma has led the nation in cutting education funding. This is not the list we should want to lead as a state. Oklahoma is now ranked 50th in both teacher pay and per student spending. We must change this fact and make the necessary and needed investments in education for our State to thrive. A great educational system is the backbone of every great economy.”
As a state legislator, what is your view on the role of tribes in Oklahoma as it pertains to state and local governments?
Atwood: “It is vital that our state and local governments have a mutually productive and respectful relationship with the tribal governments. Tribal governments are a significant driver of Oklahoma’s economy. Both tribal governments and the State of Oklahoma have the same goal – helping the citizens of the state. If elected, I want to help foster and promote the importance of a healthy and mutually beneficial partnership between the State of Oklahoma and the 39 tribal governments located in Oklahoma.”
What ideas do you have to improve communication and relationships between tribal governments and the State of Oklahoma?
Atwood: “I believe open and honest dialogue is the absolute best way to improve any relationship. If the tribal governments across Oklahoma are thriving, then our state is flourishing and visa-versa. Tribal governments and the State of Oklahoma have many more things in common than we have differences. We must continue to find areas where we can partner with each other to ultimately move the tribal nations and Oklahoma forward.”
What is your opinion on tribal-state compacts?
Atwood: “I believe the tribal-state compacts are beneficial agreements for tribal members and citizens of the State of Oklahoma. The State of Oklahoma has numerous compacts with our tribal governments covering a host of issues. Other states look to Oklahoma as an example in tribal compacting and we must continue to be on the cutting edge of compacting. These mutually beneficial compacts have improved the lives of all Oklahomans tribal members and Oklahomans.”
What is your opinion on tribal sovereignty?
Atwood: “I fully support tribal sovereignty. Tribal sovereignty, first recognized by the United States Supreme Court in 1823, is a right held by all federally recognized Indian nations to govern themselves, define their own membership, manage tribal property and regulate tribal business and domestic relations. It is vital that the State of Oklahoma understands and respects the importance of tribal sovereignty to the tribal governments located in Oklahoma.”
Do you support allowing non-tribal gaming in Oklahoma?
Atwood: “The current gaming compact between the State of Oklahoma and tribal governments prohibits anyone but tribal governments to conduct gaming activities in Oklahoma. At this time, I do not see the benefit of allowing non-tribal entities to conduct gaming operations. To date, tribes have paid $1 billion in exclusivity fees to the State of Oklahoma since the Oklahoma State-Tribal Gaming Act took effect in 2005. This money goes directly to fund public education. I support increasing the accountability and transparency in how the State of Oklahoma spends this money for public education.”
Do you support allowing internet gaming in Oklahoma? Why or why not?
Atwood: “In late 2015, an arbitrator ruled that internet gaming is not in violation of federal or state law and falls within the Oklahoma Tribal-State Gaming Compact. Although the arbitrator ruled internet gaming is allowable, I do not believe the current gaming compacts or the parties who negotiated the compacts fully anticipated the rise in Internet gaming. Internet gaming will be a significant issue during the next round of gaming compact negotiations due to how the internet is now an essential part of our everyday lives. This issue will be an important negotiation point during the next round of gaming compact negotiations. I think both parties must analyze this issue and come to a resolution that benefits both the State of Oklahoma and tribal nations.”
Do you believe that tribes should collect/remit sales tax for sales to non-members to the State of Oklahoma? Why or why not?
Atwood: “Earlier this year this very issue was presented to an arbitrator who upheld the long-standing case law precedent which precludes tribes from being forced to collect and remit sales tax for sales to non-members. Instead of litigating against each other, I believe tribal nations and the State of Oklahoma should find a way to partner with one another for the benefit of everyone.”
Who do you believe is the best method for dispute resolution between tribes and the state?
Atwood: “I believe the current method of binding arbitration is the best way to settle disputes concerning the compacts when the parties cannot come to a mutual agreement. The binding arbitration provision enables both parties to quickly present their arguments to the arbitrator and attain a ruling on the disputed issue.”