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Senate, House take different lines on gambling deal with Seminoles

TALLAHASSEE — Florida House and Senate leaders have split over whether to allow the Seminole Tribe to keep dealing Las Vegas-style banked card games at its casinos — with the House adopting a "no-black jack'' approach and the Senate calling that a non-starter.

The chairman of the House oversight committee on the gambling compact this week told his members that they will draft a bill that requires Gov. Charlie Crist to renegotiate the compact but offer the tribe slot machines only and not card games. The now-invalidated compact had allowed both.

"The House is moving toward a slots-only compact. We're reviewing the data we've received and looking at different terms that should be in a compact with the Seminoles," said Rep. Bill Galvano, the Bradenton Republican who heads the House committee on the gambling compact. "I've not encountered any colleague on the House side who will want to keep card games."

But Sen. Dennis Jones, Galvano's counterpart in the Senate, says of the slots-only option: "That's a non-starter."

He said that because of the state's growing fiscal crisis, lawmakers should find a way to get the tribe to contribute more money to the state. Scaling back the deal they now have means they'll end up with less, he said.

"The Senate's position is not to get into a compact where you're going to get less revenue," he said. "Maybe some of the House members would prefer to have property taxes go up or raise the sales tax 2 percent? We'd rather have more forms of gambling and no increases in people's property tax bills."

If the card games are shut down, the business will go to casinos in other states, he said. "Why wouldn't we want to keep that money in Florida? That's a no-brainer."

The tribe has continued operating its black jack and other so-called banked card games, even though the Florida Supreme Court ruled last year that they are not legal in Florida because Crist did not have the authority to sign a compact allowing the tribe to run them.

The court ruling has put the question before lawmakers, who must either sign off on the compact that authorizes card games or force the governor to renegotiate the deal.

Crist wants lawmakers to leave the compact intact and use an estimated $288 million in revenue sharing for this year and next to help fill a projected $6.7 billion budget gap.

But both the House and Senate have rejected that approach. Galvano said the House will not agree to expand gambling in Florida to card games but believes the $100 million a year in revenue sharing should continue because the tribe's casinos will have the exclusive right to offer slot machines outside of South Florida.

"That's a competitive advantage and there's value in that," Galvano said.

Jones offered a different option: Allow the tribe to continue the table games and pay the state more money for them. Then, help the parimutuels by lowering the 50 percent tax rate on the South Florida casinos and giving the remaining 19 dog and horse tracks across the state video slot machines.

Galvano said the House will not lower the 50 percent tax rate on slot machines at the parimutuels in Miami-Dade and Broward counties — an indication of the political difficulties of giving a tax break to gambling companies in the midst of a fiscal crisis.

Instead, he said, the House is open to giving the South Florida tracks tax credits and other incentives that will help even the odds for them against the Seminole Tribe and its casinos.

Meanwhile, both the House and Senate don't want to leave the negotiations to Crist alone next time around. Both said they will likely require him to have a legislative representative at the negotiating table when the compact talks are revived.

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

Senate, House take different lines on gambling deal with Seminoles

03/13/09 [Last modified: Friday, March 13, 2009 9:17pm]
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