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Seminoles dangle carrots for gaming deal

TALLAHASSEE — The Seminole Tribe of Florida came to the capital Monday and made an offer Florida legislators may find hard to refuse: The tribe promised to create 45,000 jobs, deliver billions in economic development and hand a check to the state for $288 million in new revenue to spend next year.

The catch?

The Legislature would have to ratify the compact between the tribe and Gov. Charlie Crist that has been invalidated by the Florida Supreme Court, and which House Republicans would like to rewrite.

"I believe this is a new negotiation," said Rep. Bill Galvano, acting chairman of the House Select Committee on Seminole Indian Compact Review. "We have to view what is presented today as an offer."

The agreement Crist negotiated with the tribe in November 2007 allowed the Seminoles to have the exclusive operation of blackjack in Florida and squelch competition by preventing the expansion of casinos. In return, the tribe would guarantee the state $100 million each year and as much as $500 million in the future.

But Galvano of Bradenton and other House Republicans wonder whether a better deal is possible.

Among the things that need improvement, Galvano said, is "a dearth of regulation that occurred in this compact." House lawmakers also don't like the idea that the tribe gets card games such as blackjack while Florida's parimutuels don't.

"The appetite for the Florida House of Representatives is not there to expand the card games," Galvano said. Instead, the committee will try to find an alternative to the deal crafted by Crist and his former deputies, George LeMieux and Paul Huck, during nearly a year of closed-door negotiations.

"It's kind of an insult to the governor," said Barry Richard, a lawyer for the tribe who represented it in the negotiations. "… What are they saying? He didn't know what he was doing or he didn't have the best interests of the state at heart?"

Richard urged legislators to sign now and change their minds later. If lawmakers ratify the compact as negotiated by Crist, they can "take the money and run," he said, using it to help fill the $3.5 billion budget hole next year.

After that, if legislators want to give blackjack or other games to the horse and dog tracks and jai alai frontons around the state, they can — and still keep the Seminole cash. The $288 million is what the state would have been entitled to in revenue sharing if the compact had been in force, along with another $12 million a month that will accumulate next year.

In addition, Jim Allen, chief executive of Seminole Gaming, told the committee that the tribe's long-range plans include major expansions that will result in a total of 45,000 jobs, including the construction of a guitar-shaped hotel in Hollywood, and expanded hotel developments at its Tampa, Coconut Creek and Immokalee casinos.

LeMieux recommended that if Galvano and others want to reopen the negotiations, they should "give the governor some parameters that are achievable" and allow him to approach the tribe. But LeMieux is skeptical that lawmakers would be able to take away card games and other gambling already here.

"Gambling in Florida is here," he said. "Any idea that we're not going to have it is a pipe dream."

The House's fierce opposition to the gambling compact has been steadily dropping, however, as the state's fiscal outlook has chilled. The replacement of antigambling stalwart Rep. Ray Sansom as speaker on Monday opened the door to more pro-gambling legislation under the new speaker, Rep. Larry Cretul of Ocala.

That could translate into legislators lowering the 50 percent tax rate on slot machines — a rate that the parimutuel industry in Miami-Dade and Broward says has forced it to operate at a net loss, making it impossible to produce the revenue the industry promised to help fund education.

Galvano said lowering the tax is a possibility.

Mary Ellen Klas can be reached at [email protected]

Seminoles dangle carrots for gaming deal 02/02/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, February 3, 2009 10:54am]
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