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Court tosses Crist's casino deal

Georgette Palmer of Palm City plays a $10 slot machine earlier this year at Seminole Hard Rock Casino and Hotel in Hollywood.

WILLIE J. ALLEN JR. | Times

Georgette Palmer of Palm City plays a $10 slot machine earlier this year at Seminole Hard Rock Casino and Hotel in Hollywood.

TALLAHASSEE — The Florida Supreme Court has struck down Gov. Charlie Crist's casino gambling compact with the Seminole Tribe, ruling he lacked authority to unilaterally forge a deal.

The decision Thursday throws into doubt hundreds of millions in revenue for the state. But for the time being, the gambling will continue at seven casinos, including Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casinos in Tampa.

The unanimous ruling is a major defeat for Crist, who did not comment. He pushed ahead with negotiations last fall even as critics warned he needed legislative approval to grant the Seminoles the right to offer card games that are otherwise illegal in Florida.

"The governor has no authority to change or amend state law. Such power falls exclusively to the Legislature," the court ruled.

House Speaker Marco Rubio, the Miami Republican and gambling opponent who filed the suit in November, said, "The court's decision is a victory for our constitutional system of checks and balances."

Much was still unknown Thursday. Crist has 15 days to ask for a rehearing.

The tribe has already paid $60.4-million to the state as part of its $100-million obligation this year. The money has not been spent.

The compact allowed the Seminoles to offer Vegas-style slots previously available only in South Florida and so-called Class 3 card games such as blackjack and baccarat that are illegal under state law.

Lawmakers could attempt to take up negotiations. Or Crist could offer the 25-year compact to the Legislature for approval. But it wasn't clear if he would do that.

"We are reviewing the opinion," said Crist's chief of staff, Eric Eikenberg.

Barry Richard, an attorney for the Seminole Tribe, said games will stay in the casino for now.

"The suit challenged the power of the governor to enter into a compact with the tribe without the approval or ratification of the Legislature," Richard said. "It was not about whether or not the games could proceed."

The U.S. Department of Interior, which already signed off on the deal, had no immediate reaction, saying it needed to study the 46-page ruling.

Slot machines have been installed at six of the tribe's seven casinos throughout the state, said Gary Bitner, spokesman for the Seminole Tribe.

The only casino that doesn't have them yet is the Seminole Casino Big Cypress south of Clewiston. The tribe had ordered 15,000 slot machines, and the bulk have been installed.

Table games have also been installed at Seminole Hard Rock in Hollywood, Bitner said. The casino has 71 tables featuring blackjack, pai gow, baccarat, mini baccarat, three-card poker and Let It Ride.

The table games drew 40,000 players the week after their installation on June 22, Bitner said.

Seminole Hard Rock in Tampa was slated to receive table games by the end of the year.

Crist's former chief of staff, George LeMieux, who was the state's lead negotiator on the compact, said that while he respected the court's decision, he disagrees with it.

LeMieux placed the blame squarely on the Legislature for refusing to pass a law ratifying the deal.

"It's easy to be a critic. It's easy to file lawsuits," LeMieux said. "But governors have to act, and this governor was in a position where they (the federal government) told him he had to act or they would give slot machines to the Seminoles and the state would receive nothing. We're now in a position where that might actually happen."

Spokesmen for horse and dog tracks, who face a competitive disadvantage against slots, hailed the court ruling.

"I think it's the right decision," said Brian Ballard, a lobbyist for a dog track, Palm Beach Kennel Club, and a close Crist political ally.

But he cautioned that it's foolhardy for the Seminole Tribe to think it might run slot machines free of government regulation.

"If the Indians think they can have untaxed slots and not suffer the consequences of an irate Legislature, they're not as smart as they think they are," Ballard said.

Rubio said he looked forward to "an open and deliberative" negotiations.

• • •

When Crist signed off on the deal in November, he heralded it as a "very historic day for Florida" and said the money should be used mostly for education.

The state was guaranteed $100-million in the first year, $125-million in the second, $150-million in the third year and then up to 25 percent of the take annually.

Crist denied he was breaking a campaign pledge to oppose the expansion of gambling and dismissed criticism the Legislature needed approval. "I don't think a vigorous debate is necessary," he said. "If people don't like gambling, they shouldn't go."

In the end, the court sided against him. "We hold the governor lacked authority to bind the state to a compact that violates Florida law," the ruling states.

Reaction was mixed at the Hard Rock in Tampa, where signs directing customers to the Vegas-style slots are abundant in the cool blue glow of the casino.

Tim O'Rear, a 49-year-old Tampa man who used to live in Las Vegas, said the decision could hurt business.

But Denise Lucas and Marcey Lucas said playing slots is "just something to do." The two are visiting from Georgia.

"We ain't in Vegas," said Marcey, 18, "so it's no big thing."

Times staff writer Casey Cora contributed to this report.

What's next?

A lot of questions are unanswered. The governor's office, the Seminole Tribe and legislative leaders all said they've made no decisions on how to proceed. Gov. Charlie Crist has 15 days to ask the state Supreme Court for a rehearing. He can also appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. It's also possible the Seminoles could seek a federal court opinion or that the U.S. Department of Interior's Bureau of Indian Affairs gets involved. The Legislature may also move to launch negotiations of its own with the tribe.

Court tosses Crist's casino deal 07/03/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, July 9, 2008 4:06pm]
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