TALLAHASSEE — Legislators are closer than ever to resolving their differences over a gambling compact with the Seminole Tribe and injecting $450 million into the state budget, the lead House negotiator said Wednesday.
But one big issue still divides them: how far to expand gambling outside of South Florida.
"We've been through regulation; we've been through timing; we've been through finance, all that stuff," said Rep. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, who has led the yearlong effort to negotiate an agreement with the tribe and legislative leaders.
Now, he said, negotiators await word whether the tribe will agree to the House's proposal to allow the 19 horse tracks, dog tracks and jai alai frontons outside Miami-Dade and Broward counties to install gambling machines.
If legislators allow the tracks and frontons outside of South Florida to install electronic machines that qualify as Class II slot machines, it's a deal breaker, the tribe's negotiators say.
But if the agreement doesn't include some expansion of the state's existing gambling industry, the Senate won't buy in.
Although the plan is still "conceptual," Galvano said, the tribe has agreed to something of a compromise: a provision that would allow parimutuels to have a type of electronic machine based on video bingo technology and featuring historic racing games. The games look much like slot machines but aren't as lucrative and produce smaller jackpots.
Senate leaders are continuing to push for a special exemption for Palm Beach County that would allow for the Palm Beach Kennel Club, if voters approve, to operate slot machines. The lawmakers want the tribe to accept the Palm Beach exemption without jeopardizing annual payments that the tribe would make to the state under the gambling agreement.
Under the agreement reached so far, the tribe would pay the state about $150 million a year for five years in exchange for the exclusive operation of Las Vegas- style slot machines at its seven casinos, Galvano said. The tribe also would have the exclusive right to run table games at four casinos in Broward, Hillsborough and Collier counties for five years.
If the Legislature allows horse tracks and other parimutuels to operate blackjack and table games, the tribe's payments to the state would be reduced but continue for slot machines only, for the next 20 years. Even those payments would end if the state approved casino-style video lottery terminals or other casino games outside of Miami-Dade and Broward counties, creating competition.
During the negotiations, the tribe initially agreed to 300 video bingo and historic race machines at each of the state's horse and dog track and jai alai frontons north of Broward, as long as the games don't operate like slot machines, Galvano said.
The House countered with 500 to 1,000 machines per parimutuel, depending on the kind of machine, and is awaiting word on that offer, he said.
Also on Wednesday, the Senate Regulated Industries Committee passed its gaming bill (SB 622) on a 6-1 vote. It would nullify both the August 2009 compact and the September 2007 compacts with the Seminole Tribe. It also would reduce the tax rate for parimutuel slot machines from 50 percent to 35 percent, lower their annual license fee, give parimutuels no-limit poker, allow racing at the Hialeah race track and extend the hours for card rooms from 12 hours to 18 hours a day Monday through Friday and 24 hours a day on weekends.
"We have most of the issues resolved right now between the House, the Senate and the Indians," said Sen. Dennis Jones, R-Treasure Island, chairman of the Senate committee. He predicted an agreement in two weeks.
Mary Ellen Klas can be reached at meklas@MiamiHerald.com.