With hours to spare before the deadline, Gov. Charlie Crist and the Seminole Tribe quietly signed a gambling agreement Monday that will keep slot machines and blackjack games at the tribe's casinos. In exchange, the tribe will make $150 million a year in payments to the state.
The deal was signed behind closed doors and without the pomp and fanfare that characterized a similar agreement signed by the governor and the tribe in November 2007. That agreement was invalidated by the state's high court because the Legislature hadn't authorized it.
Will this deal survive?
The Legislature must sign off on the compact or the governor and tribe will be forced to return to the negotiating table. Crist is expected to call for a special session in October, but, judging from the tribe's rejection of the Legislature's conditions for the agreement, there is no guarantee the lawmakers will approve it.
"There are some concerns," said Rep. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, the House's lead negotiator in the gambling negotiations. He said the legislation passed last session laid out how lawmakers wanted the governor to negotiate the gambling deal and several of those conditions were not met.
Among the "red flags" in the agreement Galvano cited:
• The tribe will operate blackjack and other banked card games at all seven of its casinos, instead of the three in Broward and Tampa as lawmakers had wanted.
• The tribe would have exclusive operation of slot machines outside of Miami-Dade and Broward. Lawmakers wanted to leave the door open for those games in horse and dog tracks 100 miles away from the tribe's casinos.
Under the deal, which would amount to at least $6.8 billion over 20 years, the tribe would pay the state a minimum of $12.5 million a month for 30 months, or $375 million.
After that, the state would net $150 million annually or a percent of the tribe's profits of between 12 percent and 25 percent up to $4 billion.
About 97 percent of the money would be used for education and the remaining 3 percent would go to local governments affected by the casinos.
Last week, Galvano and Senate President Jeff Atwater suggested the tribe be allowed monopoly status only within 100 miles of its seven casinos. They agreed to give the tribe card games at its Immokalee casino but in turn wanted to allow for the prospect of casino games to be offered in Palm Beach County, Jacksonville and North Florida if legislators or voters approved them.
The tribe rejected that condition, said Eric Eikenberg, the governor's chief of staff, who helped negotiated the pact. The Seminoles, he said, did not want the state telling them which casinos could offer the games.
Crist said that the deal will be financially beneficial to Florida.
"The revenue sharing between the tribe and the state will enable the state of Florida to invest in the future of Florida's children," he said in a statement. "I look forward to working with Chairman Bill Galvano and the Florida Legislature to ratify this important compact."
Max Osceola, a tribal council member and spokesman for the Seminoles, was also pleased with the deal. "This is something we can live with and share with our children," he said.
The $150 million minimum payment is higher than the $100 million the tribe agreed to pay the state in the original 2007 compact. But the terms of the deal are shorter. Under the original agreement, the compact would last 25 years while this one lasts 20 years.
Legislators wanted to renegotiate after 15 years.
Eikenberg said the calculations show that the state will reap at least $800 million more under this agreement than the previous one.
While the tribe yielded to the state's position on the minimum payment, the governor's office agreed to the tribe's demand that it be allowed to offer blackjack at all casinos and that the Department of Revenue be the oversight agency instead of an agency determined by the Legislature.
The Revenue Department has experience in auditing and is well-suited to check the books, Eikenberg said.
Watching closely for the final agreement were the state's horse and dog tracks and jai alai frontons, which were given unlimited poker games and lower tax rates on slot machines if the gambling compact with the tribe was signed and ratified. Their reactions were mixed.
"For the guys in Dade and Broward, at first blush it's not that bad of a deal," said Dan Adkins, president of Mardi Gras Casinos. "Outside Miami-Dade and Broward, I'm not sure they'll be accepting it."
Ron Book, lobbyist for Flagler Greyhound Racing, which owns the Fort Myers dog track near the tribe's Immokalee casino, said the pact may have unintended consequences.
"From Florida-based parimutuels and those who have been long-standing business partners with the state of Florida, it is a step backward in a big way," he said.
Atwater, the Senate president, said lawmakers are reviewing the proposal.
Herald staff writer Laura Figueroa contributed to this report. Mary Ellen Klas can be reached at [email protected]