Seminole sign deal on gaming

By David Royse
Tallahassee, Florida (AP) 11-07

Existing tribal gambling facilities in Florida will be able to add Las Vegas-style slots and card games like blackjack, and the state will get a cut of the money under an agreement signed November 14 by Gov. Charlie Crist and leaders of the Seminole Tribe of Florida.

The 25-year deal will mean a minimum of $100 million a year for the state, and while the Legislature will determine how that’s spent, Crist suggested it should go almost entirely for education.

The Legislature may fight the agreement anyway, with some House members saying the deal isn’t valid without their OK. Crist, a Republican who said while campaigning that he opposed the expansion of gambling, said he didn’t really have a choice in the matter, contending that the federal government was set to allow the Seminoles to expand their gambling offerings anyway.

It would have been irresponsible, Crist said, to bypass an opportunity to have a say in the details of what exactly is allowed at the casinos and how they are regulated, and to leave on the table millions of dollars that will be generated at the seven existing facilities on tribal lands.

Crist was up against a november 15 deadline set by the U.S. Department of the Interior, and he said he was told by federal officials that if a state deal weren’t signed Washington would move forward with allowing the Seminoles to have slot machines.

“To allow the people of Florida to not share in possibly billions of dollars of revenue over time, that is a gamble I am not willing to take,” Crist said.

The agreement, signed by Crist and Seminole Chairman Mitchell Cypress gives the tribe exclusive rights to operate slots and certain casino card games in tribe’s Hard Rock casinos in Broward County and Tampa as well as five other facilities on tribal lands.

The casinos will not be allowed to have table games such as craps or roulette, under the agreement.

The compact gives the tribe the exclusive rights to offer the slot machines and banked card games like blackjack, baccarat and chemin de fer, plus a certain number of no-limit poker tournaments, outside of Miami-Dade and Broward counties. If the Legislature were to vote in the future to allow others to offer expanded gambling outside those two counties, the tribe would no longer have to pay the state under the compact.

The signing of the agreement immediately drew criticism from state legislators in Crist’s own party, many of whom oppose expanding gambling. The state House has contended that the Legislature must ratify any agreement with the Seminoles – a position Crist rejected.

“There is no provision in our constitution for ratification of this compact, and it is not our intention that the Legislature will ratify it,” said Crist’s chief of staff, George LeMieux.

LeMieux noted the deal doesn’t spell out how the money must be spent by the state.

House Speaker Marco Rubio, R-West Miami, said the House is of the legal opinion that any gambling compact is invalid without legislative approval, and raised the prospect of a court fight.

Senate President Ken Pruitt, R-Port St. Lucie, said his chamber’s lawyers hadn’t yet evaluated the compact or decided what, if anything, the Senate may do.

The Seminole tribe has sought to expand its options for offering gambling for more than a decade, and has been trying to negotiate some sort of agreement with state officials for 16 years.

Cypress said the agreement would help “our younger generation,” providing for additional money for the tribe that would allow for expanded educational opportunities for tribal members.

The state will get $50 million immediately and $100 million guaranteed in the first year. In the second year, the state is guaranteed $125 million and at least $150 million in the third year. Following that, the amount depends on revenues – but everyone involved in the negotiations said it will quickly add up to billions.

The governor was against allowing table games like craps, because that would have more significantly expanded gambling, LeMieux said. Florida already allows card games.

“We tried to stay within the realm of what we already had, which is card games, and not take the further step,” LeMieux said.

The reason the federal government said the state must allow the tribe to expand its gambling options was that voters in Florida in 2004 changed the constitution to allow for the possibility of slot machines in Broward and Miami-Dade counties. Federal law says that when states expand gambling, tribes must be allowed to also.

Under the state’s interpretation of federal requirements, the Indians must be granted something exclusive. To meet that requirement, the tribe will also have the exclusive right to operate any video lottery terminal-type games outside of Broward or Miami-Dade county.

Dog and horse tracks and jai alai frontons in Broward County, which have been allowed by voters to add slots, can continue to offer Las Vegas style slots under the agreement, LeMieux said.

Crist rejected the idea that signing the compact amounted to expanding gambling when he’d campaigned against that.

“If people don’t like gambling, they shouldn’t go,” Crist said.