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Seminoles, Crist make $1.1 billion gambling pitch

TALLAHASSEE — As legislative budget negotiations reached a stalemate Wednesday, Gov. Charlie Crist and the Seminole Tribe offered the state a financial lifeline: $1.1 billion in cash over two years in return for giving the tribe a gambling monopoly.

The deal would allow the Seminoles to continue running blackjack tables at their Hard Rock Casinos, plus five other tribal sites, and it would give the tribe the exclusive right to operate Class III slot machines outside of Miami-Dade and Broward counties.

In return, the Seminoles would send the state $600 million in 2009-10 and another $500 million, if needed, in 2010-11. During the 25-year agreement, the total minimum payment to the state would be $2.5 billion, minus interest payments for the upfront money in the first two years.

The tradeoff for Florida: no payment at all in year three, then payments that would slowly ramp up again in years four through 25.

Crist called it "significantly improved" over the gambling agreement he negotiated in 2007, which was invalidated by the Florida Supreme Court.

But the lead gambling negotiators in the House and Senate called it a bad deal for Florida.

"Our approach to the compact is not about filling a fiscal need," said Rep. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton. "We are facing budget problems, but taking out a line of credit from the Seminoles is not a responsible way to balance our budget. … Front-loading the payments is a short-term solution that will lead to long-term problems for our state and its industries."

Sen. Dennis Jones, R-Seminole, the Senate's lead negotiator, said the agreement seems to indicate the governor has backed off his support for the Senate plan to offer additional games to horse and dog tracks to better allow them to compete with the tribe.

The proposal must be approved by the Legislature to become law.

Barry Richard, a lawyer for the tribe, said the tribe decided to offer the money when it became clear that lawmakers were struggling to fill their budget deficit.

The tribe arrived at the $600 million figure because it roughly equals the difference between the House and Senate budgets and also because it combines the amount it would have owed the state this year under the previous agreement — $288 million — and the amount it can borrow from financial markets.

Under the plan, the state would split the cost of the loan 50-50 with the tribe.

For the parimutuel industry, it's a tough bargain.

Marc Dunbar, a lawyer and lobbyist for Gulfstream Race Track in Hallandale, said, "There are a lot of legislators who have parimutuels in their districts. … Are they going to be willing to take the money from the tribe and forsake their incumbent industries?"

Crist has an answer: "Do this for the children of Florida." He said the money should be dedicated to education.

Herald/Times staff writers Marc Caputo and Amy Hollyfield contributed to this report. Mary Ellen Klas can be reached at meklas@MiamiHerald.com.

Seminoles, Crist make $1.1 billion gambling pitch 04/22/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, April 28, 2009 12:49pm]
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