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Florida Legislature reaches deal on Seminole gambling

TALLAHASSEE — The Seminole Tribe's Hard Rock casinos will keep their slot machines and card games. Florida's historic Hialeah Park racetrack will return. And racetracks around the state could seek bingo-style slot machines in the future.

Those are the major provisions of a last-minute compromise reached late Wednesday by House and Senate leaders.

If approved by the Seminole Tribe, the plan would bring the state a minimum of $150 million in annual revenue sharing from the Seminole Tribe, and allow the state to use another $150 million set aside by the tribe this year when its previous gambling agreement with the governor was voided by a court.

"This is a victory for the children of Florida and education," said Gov. Charlie Crist, who must now renegotiate a pact with the tribe under the new legislative guidelines, and then have it approved by lawmakers.

Will the Seminole Tribe accept it?

"There's a great possibility of that," he said.

The deal adopts most of the provisions sought by the anti-gambling House. It includes a plan to allow slot machines at Seminole casinos outside Miami-Dade and Broward — the tribe has seven reservations — and the exclusive right to blackjack and baccarat at its Hard Rock casinos in Hillsborough and Broward counties.

The gambling bill was the final piece of unfinished business in the Legislature's extended session. A vote on it will likely be held Friday, the final day of the overtime.

Legislators completed the $66.5 billion budget Tuesday, leaving the gambling deal for the final hours. In the end, it came down to pragmatism and money.

Senate leaders for months had pushed for a wide expansion of gambling. By contrast, the more antigambling House wanted to expand gaming only to Hialeah race course, while stripping the Seminole Tribe of blackjack and house-banked card games it currently operates. The tribe has continued to operate the games won under the previous compact, even though the Florida Supreme Court invalidated the agreement last year.

Negotiations were tense throughout the day. At one point, House chief negotiator Bill Galvano of Bradenton declared that the Senate was "moving backwards" and abruptly walked out of gambling talks.

Eight hours later, the Senate capitulated. The House arrived at a "final offer" and presented it to lead Senate negotiator J.D. Alexander of Lake Wales, while Senate President Jeff Atwater, Republican Senate Leader Alex Diaz de la Portilla, Gov. Crist and the representatives of the Seminole Tribe watched.

Alexander briefly conferred with Atwater and announced they'd reached an agreement.

The deal no longer penalizes other dog and horse tracks and jai alai frontons across the state for seeking additional games including video lottery terminals, which are slot machine look-alikes.

Under the new plan, the tribe could not reduce its annual minimum $150 million payments to the state even if competitors outside of Miami-Dade and Broward counties win legislative approval for additional games and also win local referendums.

The two requirements are large hurdles. "It'll probably put us out of business," said Ken Plante, a lobbyist for Tampa Bay Downs.

Mary Ellen Klas can be reached at

.Fast facts

Agreement highlights

• The Seminole Tribe's Hard Rock casinos near Hollywood and Tampa keep their slot machines and card games in return for a minimum $150 million annual payment to the state for 15 years.

• Historic Hialeah Park racetrack would reopen with card rooms and quarter horse racing.

• The tribe now can offer no-limit poker at all seven of its reservations but it may operate blackjack, chemin de fer and baccarat only in Broward and Hillsborough counties.

• Horse and dog tracks around the state would be able to offer no-limit poker. They will not get video lottery terminals, or VLTs, which are bingo-style slot machines, unless they get legislative approval and pass a voter referendum.

• The tribe may reduce its payments to the state only if blackjack and other Class III games are authorized in the state and their net win drops below $1.37 billion.

• Gov. Charlie Crist has until Aug. 31 to negotiate a deal with the tribe, and it must be approved by the Legislature.

Florida Legislature reaches deal on Seminole gambling 05/06/09 [Last modified: Saturday, May 9, 2009 11:52am]
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