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House, Seminole Tribe negotiators appear to be closing in on gambling deal

TALLAHASSEE — The framework of a gambling agreement with the Seminole Tribe is under way as both House negotiators and the tribe's lawyers are working earnestly in time for lawmakers to start counting on the cash this session.

The details are in flux, but those close to the negotiations say that both sides are moving toward compromise. It would allow the state to bank the $430 million from a gambling agreement this year and then walk away from the compact in three to five years if lawmakers decide to expand gambling and end the tribe's monopoly on blackjack and other table games.

"It's one of the ideas that are on the table to break the logjam," said Barry Richard, a lawyer for the Seminoles. Tribe representatives have been meeting with Rep. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, and Sen. Mike Haridopolos, R-Melbourne, to resolve the impasse over the gambling agreement signed between the tribe and Gov. Charlie Crist last August.

"I think we're very close," said Rep. Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, a key member of the House leadership. "I think we'll have an agreement that we can work with."

Gov. Charlie Crist used his State of the State speech Tuesday to give the negotiations a boost, urging gambling opponents to elevate "problem solving over ideology."

"I'm not a big fan of gambling either," he said, but added that regardless of whether the legislature approves the agreement, the tribe will run its games. But "the people of Florida very much need the money that this compact can provide for critically important services."

Under the concept being floated by both sides, the tribe would pay the state about $150 million a year for five years and have exclusive operation of the table games in South Florida.

If the Legislature allows horse tracks and parimutuels to operate blackjack and table games, the payments to the state would be reduced but continue on slot machines for the next 20 years. 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 new competition, Richard said.

"The only thing the tribe is paying for is exclusivity, and it's not really buying it, it's renting it — because the Legislature could change it at any point," he said.

If lawmakers agree to a compromise that suits both sides, they are expected to tie it to passage of a measure that will lower the tax rate for the state's parimutuels, from 50 percent of operating revenue to 35 percent, making it easier for the parimutuels to compete with the tribe.

Galvano was also confident that a resolution is likely. "We're making progress, so I remain optimistic," he said.

Richard was also hopeful. "It's the first time House and Senate leadership is talking directly to us," he said. "If both sides can find middle ground, we can make it work."

This would be lawmakers' second try at reaching a gambling agreement. Federal law allows the tribe to operate Class III gaming only if it has a valid compact with the state. Crist originally signed a compact in November 2007, only to have it invalidated by the Florida Supreme Court because it was not ratified by the Legislature.

Last year, lawmakers approved the framework for the governor to sign with the tribe, but when they agreed to a modified compact, the House rejected it and that forced them back to the negotiating table.

Mary Ellen Klas can be reached at meklas@MiamiHerald.com.

House, Seminole Tribe negotiators appear to be closing in on gambling deal 03/02/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, March 2, 2010 10:42pm]
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