The Seminole Tribe of Florida will be at the center of the debate when lawmakers return to the issue of gambling this year. • Though little has changed for the tribe in the past year — it still runs blackjack and other casino games without a valid state gambling agreement — its influence is being felt in all corners of the state. • Other players in the gambling scene, spurred by the prospect of the state giving the tribe a monopoly in some areas, are pushing to add more games and more gambling options in Florida.
• The state Division of Parimutuel Wagering gave permission for the state's seven parimutuel casinos to start using a slot machine-style blackjack game.
• Hialeah Park resumed live racing at the historic track with quarter horses.
• One of the largest casino operators in Las Vegas, Sheldon Adelson of Las Vegas Sands, has hired a lobbyist to explore the prospect of resort-style casinos in Florida.
• The Florida House, with a history of opposing the expansion of gambling, is pushing legislation to lower the tax rate on slot machines at parimutuels.
• The operators of international online poker sites are asking legislators to pass a law to allow online poker games within the state.
• And perhaps the biggest change of all: The federal government, after nearly three years of taking a hands-off approach to Florida's gambling scene, has indicated it will decide whether to shut down or sanction the Seminole Tribe's table games, which were ruled illegal in Florida by a 2008 Florida Supreme Court decision.
"There is a heightened level of involvement and diligence occurring on the part of federal government," said Rep. Bill Galvano, the Bradenton Republican who has headed legislative attempts to craft a gambling compact with the tribe.
Under federal law, the tribe is supposed to have a gambling agreement — or compact — with the state in order to operate its table games. Even though talks have broken down, the tribe continues to send the state $12 million a month, the amount it would owe the state if its gambling compact were in effect. And the tribe's competitors have continued trying to undercut a potential Seminole monopoly of casino games in Florida.
Gov. Charlie Crist and the Seminoles signed a second gambling compact last year but failed to include many limitations demanded by lawmakers, and a House committee rejected it this month.
The National Indian Gaming Commission — which regulates tribal casinos — made it clear in October that it could take action against the tribe for running games invalidated by the Supreme Court decision.
By January, the tribe had filed a legal memo with the federal agency arguing that because video blackjack games are now running at Mardi Gras Casino and Gulfstream Park, the tribe's games are no longer illegal.
Officials for the NIGC inspected the machines at Mardi Gras — a sign, Galvano said, that the agency is taking a more aggressive approach to Florida's situation. The federal agency is still evaluating what to do, an NIGC spokesman said.
Galvano said he hopes the federal agency will halt the tribe's table games and increase the incentive for the tribe to make concessions to the state.
"Until then, it's like negotiating over your phone while you still get to use your phone," he said.
The tribe returned to informal negotiations with Galvano and the Legislature's lawyers in late February. Galvano and House Speaker Larry Cretul credit the federal government's involvement.
"The fact that the feds are asking them to justify a position is light years away from where we were just a year ago," Galvano said.
Even without a compact, legislators seem likely to approve a House proposal to help the parimutuels better compete with the tribe by reducing the tax rate on slot machines from 50 percent to 35 percent and allowing hours that match those at tribal casinos. Legislators approved a similar proposal last session but tied the effective date to the successful completion of a compact — which hasn't happened.
To Dan Adkins, head of Hallandale Beach's Mardi Gras casino, the move would finally allow "the seven facilities to be what voters thought they were voting for," he said.
The hefty tax rate pushed by former Gov. Jeb Bush and former House Speaker Allan Bense "set us up to fail," Adkins said. "They came close, but we're still here."
Galvano hopes the increased competition combined with new interest by the federal government will make the tribe amenable to a plan that does less harm to Florida's parimutuel industry, he said.
Crist, a strong advocate for the tribe during compact negotiations, is confident a resolution will be found soon. One incentive: The $225 million the tribe has already paid the state for its share of gambling proceeds if a compact is approved. Crist's proposed budget counts on that money to pay for schools and includes another $150 million in payments from the tribe next year.
Crist said he thinks the next round of negotiations will probably have to include more help for the parimutuels than in the previous two versions of the compact. "I think we'll probably end up with some sort of hybrid … the parimutuel industry is very strong and powerful in this state and in this Capitol," he said.
Marc Dunbar, a lobbyist for Gulfstream Park in Hallandale Beach, believes a compromise would give the Seminoles the right to operate a monopoly in some parts of the state and require parimutuels outside of Miami-Dade and Broward to get approval from local voters for slots.
The big selling point, he said: "Everyone can get behind a broad package that helps the economy."
Mary Ellen Klas can be reached at meklas@MiamiHerald.com.