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Friday deadline looms as Florida legislators try to resolve gambling standoff

TALLAHASSEE — The Legislature's focus shifted Monday as House and Senate leaders finished budget negotiations and started to address the major issue left undone: the gambling compact with the Seminole Tribe.

The Senate will offer a "substantial'' compromise today to authorize gambling at the Seminole Hard Rock casinos while also helping the state's parimutuels — horse and dog tracks and jai alai frontons — compete with tribal gaming, said Sen. J.D. Alexander, R-Lake Wales. He wouldn't disclose details.

"Clearly, the compact offers some of the biggest revenues for the state, but balancing all those interests for people like me who are reluctant to expand gaming … is a balancing act we'll have to work through," Alexander said.

Lawmakers have until midnight Friday to reach an accord on the gambling compact or walk away from at least $288 million. That's the cash that will be sitting in the bank by June 30, 2010, under a gaming compact signed by the Seminoles and Gov. Charlie Crist but later invalidated by the courts.

If they don't reach agreement, Alexander said lawmakers may have to call a special session to deal with gambling.

To get a new compact passed, gambling proponents have to win over lawmakers who want to protect their hometown horse and dog tracks from the tribe's expanding empire. That's where talks have bogged down.

The Senate wants to give parimutuels more gambling options, including video lottery terminals, which are slot machine look-alikes. The antigaming House, however, rejects the idea of giving the parimutuels more games and also wants to limit the games the Seminoles can offer at their seven reservations.

"It's not so simple as people think," said Rep. David Rivera, R-Miami, who supports expanded gambling for South Florida horse and dog tracks.

Both the House and Senate have agreed to help the casinos currently operating in Broward and Miami-Dade counties by lowering the tax rate on slot machines from 50 percent to 35 percent. But they haven't decided how far to go to help other gaming entities, such as the dog tracks scattered around the state.

On Friday, the House offered a compromise that would allow the tribe to continue offering blackjack at its Hard Rock Casino near Hollywood, but not at any of its other gambling venues, including the Hard Rock in Tampa.

Crist commended the House for "substantial movement'' and said Monday that he remained optimistic lawmakers would work out a deal by the end of the week.

Some legislators say House and Senate leaders lost leverage this week when they separated the gambling issues from the education funding in the budget. That reduced pressure on antigaming House members to vote for the plan.

Some legislators also say it allows lawmakers to drag out the issue for another year while collecting campaign contributions from the gambling industry.

"As long as the industry continues to give campaign contributions to the Republican Party of Florida, I would say the proposal's in doubt," said Rep. Ron Saunders, D-Key West. "When they took out the funding tie to education, that was the death knell."

Gambling talks have been stalled for another reason: Alexander has been busy. As the Senate's lead budget negotiator, he worked through the weekend and now has 16 bills to resolve before the Legislature can pass the budget.

Though one of the Seminoles' seven reservations, Brighton, is in his district, Alexander said, "most of my constituents would prefer to see gaming go away." But most of the Senate feels the opposite way, Alexander said, so he said he would try to hold to the Senate position as closely as possible.

Alexander said he would prefer to wait until Thursday to resolve the gambling questions.

"That way, the special interests won't have so much lead time to work the members," he said.

Herald/Times staff writers Marc Caputo and Steve Bousquet contributed to this report. Mary Ellen Klas can be reached at meklas@miamiherald.com.

Friday deadline looms as Florida legislators try to resolve gambling standoff 05/04/09 [Last modified: Monday, May 4, 2009 10:10pm]

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