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Seminole gambling pact to get thorough legislative review

TALLAHASSEE — The suspended gambling compact between the Seminole Tribe of Florida and Gov. Charlie Crist will undergo an intense review from a special legislative committee before lawmakers put their stamp on the deal, House Speaker Ray Sansom said Tuesday.

Sansom, a Destin Republican and gambling opponent, announced the creation of the Select Committee on Seminole Indian Compact Review to "break down the compact" that was supposed to steer millions in gambling revenue to state coffers. The panel will hear why the governor signed the deal in November 2007, review options for changing it and then decide whether or not ratify it.

The compact signed by Crist and the tribe gives the Seminoles the right to offer Las Vegas-style slot machines as well as table games such as black jack and baccarat at their casinos in Florida. In exchange, the tribe guaranteed the state would receive $375-million over the next three years and at least $100-million a year for 25 years, as long as the state prevents the tribe's competitors — parimutuels including horse and dog tracks and jai alai frontons — from expanding their gambling offerings.

Former House Speaker Marco Rubio and the House sued the governor earlier this year, alleging that the agreement violated state law because table games were not allowed under Florida law. The Florida Supreme Court ruled unanimously that the House was right and it is up to the Legislature to approve or reject the deal.

Crist said Tuesday he is encouraged by the creation of the committee, but warned legislators not to use the compact as an opportunity to draw more money from the tribe. "I think we have a very well-thought-out, well-negotiated, fair compact, negotiated at a time when the economy was doing even better than it is today," Crist told the Times/Herald.

He said a gambling compact "can be a very significant revenue source" for the state but added that the money could be lost if the Legislature doesn't approve an agreement.

"My concern is if we don't enter into a compact eventually, the tribe will do what it's going to do anyway and Florida taxpayers won't benefit," he said.

Barry Richard, one of the lawyers who negotiated the compact for the Seminole Tribe, said he "never expected the Legislature to rubber stamp it." But he warned that reopening negotiations in light of the current economic downturn might result in the tribe being unwilling to offer the terms it gave the state a year ago.

Senate leaders said Tuesday they are open to whatever the House recommends but believe the debate will include changes to the state's slot machine laws. The Senate last year passed a bill that would lower the 50 percent tax rate on slot machines at parimutuels, as long as the money the state collects in taxes doesn't decline. The bill did not pass the House.

Seminole gambling pact to get thorough legislative review 12/09/08 [Last modified: Friday, December 12, 2008 2:30pm]
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