TALLAHASSEE — The Florida House of Representatives declared an impasse Wednesday in gambling talks with the Seminole Tribe of Florida and asked the federal government to stop casino games on the tribe's reservations.
After decades of fights in the courts and halls of the Legislature, a clear agreement between the state and the tribe over gambling seemed closer than ever this year.
But as the two sides have squabbled over money, the tribe has continued to offer blackjack and baccarat at casinos. House Speaker Larry Cretul insisted that the Seminoles lacked the authority to do so.
"The disadvantages to the state in attempting to negotiate a compact under the present circumstances are clear," Cretul wrote in a letter to George Skibine, chairman of the National Indian Gaming Commission.
"Until the banked card games (and slot machines) are shut down and the tribe gives some indication that it is willing to abide by the law, and ultimately its agreements," Cretul wrote, "it would appear that the state would be ill-advised to enter into any compact with the tribe."
Cretul asked Skibine to consider slapping the tribe with a $25,000 fine for each violation. That could total $350,000 a day, according Bradenton Rep. Bill Galvano, the House's lead negotiator with the Seminole Tribe.
The tribe said it will not pay fines and will continue to offer the games, saying the games are legal under federal law that recognizes Indian tribes as governments separate from states.
Skibine could not be reached for comment. A spokesman, Shawn Pensoneau, said the commissioner received the letter, which he described as "rare." He stressed that the commissioner had not determined how to deal with the issue — if at all.
Skibine has the authority to order a shutdown of the gaming activities, but the process could take months and involve lengthy and costly legal fights over the vaguely worded Indian Gaming Regulatory Act. Ultimately, the case could end up before the U.S. Supreme Court.
The Florida Supreme Court ruled in 2008 that an initial gambling agreement, or compact, between Gov. Charlie Crist and the tribe wasn't valid because the Legislature hadn't signed off on allowing the tribe to offer blackjack and other table games, which remain illegal under Florida law.
But before the Florida court invalidated the compact, the agreement was published in the Federal Register in January 2008, validating its legality, the tribe argues.
The Florida Supreme Court "only addressed a narrow aspect of the governor's authority and specifically declined to address the status of the compact under the federal Indian Gaming Regulatory Act," tribe spokesman Gary Bitner said in a written statement.
"Since the federal approval of the tribe's 2007 compact has not been reversed by any judicial or administrative decision, the compact remains in effect as a matter of federal law," Bitner wrote. "The tribe's gaming facilities continue to operate in full compliance with the 2007 compact."
Crist told the Times/Herald Wednesday that he held out hope that a deal would still be struck. "I don't know that we've reached an impasse," he said. "I don't agree with that assessment yet."
At stake: At least $150 million in yearly payments from the tribe to the state to help pay for education. Crist has often mentioned the money as a way to preserve and improve schools.
But legislators aren't so sure.
The House's budget chief, Miami Republican David Rivera, said the state faces a potential deficit of $2.6 billion in the budget year that would begin July 1, 2010. To preserve K-12 spending at its current level, the state would need an additional $516 million — more than three times the amount of the Seminole gaming money.
"The speaker and members of the House say there are larger considerations than just money," said Rivera. "Some are worried about the expansion of gaming or the impact on existing parimutuels, and some members have moral considerations. Others think the Seminoles aren't giving enough."
Former state Sen. Steve Geller, a gaming expert, said "Skibine has no choice but to shut this down." But he noted this is uncharted territory "because it never happened before in the four or five cases where a tribe has been told to stop."
Times/Herald staff writers Mary Ellen Klas, Beth Reinhard and Shannon Colavecchio contributed to this report. Marc Caputo can be reached at mcaputo@MiamiHerald.com.