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Seminole Tribe, Crist expected to sign gambling compact

TALLAHASSEE — After three years and just as many attempts, Gov. Charlie Crist and the Seminole Tribe announced Tuesday they have a gambling agreement that balances the needs of the state and the tribe — and legislators.

The result, they say, is legislation expected to pass this week ratifying a compact that would guarantee the state $1 billion in new revenue for the next five years and possibly $500 million more.

The proposal is expected to be approved by the tribal council Wednesday morning in Hollywood, signed by Crist later in the day, and ratified by the House and Senate as early as Thursday.

"This really bodes well for the future of Florida," Crist said at a news conference announcing the agreement Tuesday, adding that he hopes the money will be directed to education. "The compact will help improve the quality of life for all Floridians and it could benefit the tribe and all our entire state."

The linchpin of the deal is the plan to authorize — for five years only, and at five of the tribe's seven casinos — card games that currently are not legal in Florida. In previous talks, the prospect of the tribe offering blackjack, baccarat and chemin de fer — table games that weren't allowed anywhere else in Florida — repeatedly stalled attempts at compromise.

Former Gov. Jeb Bush and the more conservative House always fought the games as an expansion of gambling in Florida, while the more moderate Senate wanted to give the state's horse and dog tracks and jai alai frontons the opportunity to offer the same games to compete with the tribe.

The five-year limit gives the tribe the assurance that the Legislature won't give the parimutuels the card games as the tribe expands the games and makes other investments in its gambling empire.

"When the tribe is committing this type of money, it's important to know the scope of gaming," said Jim Allen, CEO of the Seminole's Hard Rock Casino in Hollywood who proposed the five-year limit when talks resumed with legislators early this year.

After the tribe operates the card games for five years, the Legislature must either pass a law to allow them to continue or order the tribe to halt the games. Lawmakers could also expand casinos to other parts of Florida. In that case, the tribe would be allowed to reduce the amount of money it pays the state.

If the Legislature doesn't take any action at all, the authorization for the table games expires after the five years. The tribe would still have to pay the state to continue operating Las Vegas-style, or Class III, slot machines for the next 15 years.

"At the end of the day, what we have created is a good basis for moving forward and some real equity," said Rep. Bill Galvano, a Bradenton Republican and the key legislative negotiator with the tribe.

As a condition of approving the compact, the Legislature will also approve a parimutuel equity bill to lower the tax rate on slot machines for dog tracks, horse tracks and jai alai frontons in Miami-Dade and Broward from 50 percent to 35 percent. The bill will also extend hours, betting limits and clean up some loopholes in the law to favor parimutuels.

"I'm happy with it," said Dan Adkins, president of Mardi Gras Casino and Gaming in Hollywood. "I view it as a way to start to deliver what we promised. We've had our hands tied with this tax rate."

He said his casino will use the tax break to expand and better promote its games.

Galvano, Sen. Dennis Jones, lawyers for the governor and representatives of the tribe finalized the agreement during negotiations Friday.

The proposal allows the tribe exclusive operation of table games at its Broward, Immokalee and Tampa casinos, but not at its Brighton casino in Okeechobee or its Big Cypress casino in Clewiston. It will be allowed to operate Class III, Las Vegas-style slot machines at all seven casinos.

The payments to the state will be broken down this way: $150 million per year for years one and two, $233 million for years three and four and $234 million for year five.

Additionally, because the agreement will require the tribe to pay 10 percent of its net revenue to the state over the last three years of the table-game agreement, legislative staff members expect the payments to exceed the minimum amounts — by an estimated $200 million.

Add to that the $287 million that will be in the bank from the tribe — because it has been sending the state $12.5 million a month since Crist signed the first, now-defunct compact in November 2007 — and House and Senate negotiators say they can comfortably predict the state will net $1.5 billion over five years.

The proposal allows the 19 parimutuels outside of Miami-Dade and Broward to install as many as 350 bingo-style machines, vending machines that dispense lottery tickets and historic racing machines.

The proposal explicitly defines the games to make sure they do not operate or look too similar to slot machines.

The historic racing machines are patterned after games already offered in other states, which allow players to bet on horse or dog races. The historic races would have a maximum prize of $1,000 to $2,500.

The compact also requires the tribe to operate a training and education program on compulsive gambling and provide materials about a 24-hour gambling helpline and maintain a list of problem gamblers

The tribe agrees to waive its tribal sovereign immunity and be subject to lawsuits if visitors to its property are injured. The lawsuits, however, will be held to the same limits as the state -- currently at $100,000 to $200,000 per incident.

Mary Ellen Klas can be reached at meklas@MiamiHerald.com.

Seminole Tribe, Crist expected to sign gambling compact 04/06/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, April 6, 2010 9:47pm]
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