TALLAHASSEE — Legislators reached a $1.5 billion, five-year gambling agreement with the Seminole Tribe on Friday, after closed-door negotiations resulted in a deal that will give the tribe the exclusive right to operate table games in South Florida and operate slot machines at its other casinos.
"We feel we have an agreement we can take back to our respective chambers," said Rep. Bill Galvano, a Bradenton Republican and the Legislature's lead negotiator. He spent Friday in daylong talks with Sen. Dennis Jones, R-Seminole, House and Senate staff members, lawyers for Gov. Charlie Crist and representatives for the tribe.
But, Galvano added, "it's not a done deal until we get it through the House, the Senate and the tribal council."
Under the plan, he said, the tribe would pay the state $150 million in the first two years, $233 million in the third and fourth years and $234 million in the fifth year for the exclusive operation of blackjack and other games at its casinos in Hollywood, Immokalee and Tampa. The tribe would have the option to add table games to its casino in Coconut Creek. All seven of the tribe's casinos would continue to operate Las Vegas-style slot machines for the next 20 years, for which it would pay the state.
Crist said he had spoken with Galvano and Jones.
"I think we're just about there," he said. "From what I know right now, I'm extremely encouraged. … I look forward to bringing this in for a landing."
This is the third time the tribe has reached a tentative agreement with the state since it began negotiating over slot machines in 2007, but it is the only time it has dealt directly with the Legislature. The tribe signed agreements with Crist in November 2007 and August 2009, but both were rejected by the Legislature.
Friday's agreement includes the highest up-front payment that has been negotiated with the tribe so far. Galvano called the agreement "a very positive deal for the state."
"It's a reasonable approach to this issue, and, if completed, it will bring closure to a controversy that has extended for almost two decades," he said.
The tribe considers the accord "a deal," said Barry Richard, the tribe's attorney, though he noted that "at any point something can go wrong."
"It's light-years from where we were before," Richard said. "This is the first time that we've been talking with the Legislature, and it's a been a very vigorous conversation and everybody's at the table."
The measure also attempts to help horse and dog tracks and jai alai frontons in Florida better compete with the Seminole Tribe's growing gambling presence.
The agreement gives the parimutuels higher betting limits for poker and extended hours, and it requires the tribe to increase its regulations to bring it more in par with those required of casinos in Miami-Dade and Broward, Galvano said. In separate legislation, lawmakers expect to lower the tax rate for the Seminole's parimutuel competitors in Miami-Dade and Broward.
Under the proposed compact, the Palm Beach County Kennel Club would be allowed to move its racing permit to another location within the county, and future legislatures could authorize expanded games for the 19 tracks and frontons outside Miami-Dade and Broward.
Those expansions could give each of the tracks and frontons 350 video bingo and historic race machines, as long as the games do not operate like slot machines, Galvano said. "Those games are not what's currently being manufactured," he said, but he expects manufacturers to respond by developing machines that fit the need.
The negotiations were snagged temporarily Friday by a surprise move by Senate leaders to allow the Florida Lottery to let its ticket vendors install instant ticket machines that sell pull-tab-style lottery games, a move that could allow dog tracks in Palm Beach, Jacksonville, Collier and other counties to further expand their gaming options.
In the end, though, the proposed agreement would allow lottery dispensing machines but not the kind that play or look like slot machines, Galvano said.
Galvano emphasized that there is no agreement to authorize any new games for the parimutuels and the House won't approve a bill this year to do so. But the agreement opens the door to future legislatures to approve video bingo and other games without having to renegotiate the compact, he said.
If the Legislature allows horse tracks and other parimutuels to operate blackjack and table games after five years, the tribe's payments to the state would be reduced but continue for slot machines. Those payments would end, however, if the state approves casino-style video lottery terminals or other casino games outside of Miami-Dade and Broward counties, creating competition for the tribe.
Mary Ellen Klas can be reached at meklas@MiamiHerald.com.