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Three years in the making, Crist completes Seminole Tribe gambling agreement

TALLAHASSEE — With little fanfare, Gov. Charlie Crist on Wednesday signed the bill ratifying the $1 billion Seminole gambling compact with the state and lowering the tax rate on South Florida parimutuels.

The law gives the Seminole Tribe exclusive rights to operate Vegas-style slot machines outside of South Florida for 20 years, and allows the tribe to operate house-banked card games such as blackjack and baccarat at five of its seven facilities for five years.

In exchange, the state will receive $435 million this year and at least $1 billion over the next five years. And if tribal gambling revenue grows as expected, the state could collect another $300 million over that time.

Under the plan, South Florida's parimutuels will see tax rates drop from 50 percent to 35 percent and licensing fees for slot machines reduced from $3 million a year to $2.5 million in 2011 and $2 million in 2012.

The bill also opens the door to no-limit poker at parimutuel card rooms, and extends poker hours from 12 to 18 hours Monday through Friday and 24 hours a day on the weekends.

Hialeah Racetrack also will be allowed to expand under the bill. It will be allowed to offer slot machines in 2011 and will be able to convert half of its quarter horse races to thoroughbred races.

The agreement with the tribe has been a top priority for Crist, who began negotiating the accord three months into office. After the first agreement was challenged in 2008 by then-House Speaker Marco Rubio, the Florida Supreme Court invalidated it.

In an extended 2009 session, legislators established guidelines for the governor. But Crist and the tribe rejected some of the Legislature's requirements when they signed a second compact, prompting lawmakers to shun that proposal and start again this year.

"Today's bill signing is the last step in a historic effort that benefits both the Seminole Tribe and the entire state of Florida," Crist said in a statement after signing the bill in his office, with the legislative sponsors, Rep. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, and Sen. Dennis Jones, R-Seminole. "Following three years of healthy debate and deliberation, the children and families of Florida are now the beneficiaries of much-needed money that will be used to fund critical needs such as education."

In a statement, the Seminole Tribe thanked Crist for his "steadfast support," noting that the measure "preserved thousands of Florida jobs and helped to create thousands more."

Because the tribe is a sovereign nation and not subject to state and federal laws, it can only be obligated to pay revenue to the state if it receives something in return. In this case, it's the exclusive ability to offer table games in South Florida, and the slot machines outside of South Florida.

The tribe's growing gambling footprint in Florida — especially the Tampa area, home to its largest Hard Rock casino — threatens Florida parimutuels that don't have slot machines.

According to a study by the Innovation Group, casino financing specialists, the tribe's gambling expansion in the Tampa Bay area reduced prize money or "live handle" for racing at the Tampa Bay Downs greyhound track by 5 percent in 2007-08 and 22 percent in 2008-09.

The compact "will probably put the parimutuels out of business in this state," Ken Plante, a lobbyist for Tampa Bay Downs, told a House committee.

The Interior Department must sign off on the ratified compact within 45 days.

A spokesman for Crist said the governor will conduct a ceremonial signing of the bill with the tribe in South Florida sometime next week.

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

Three years in the making, Crist completes Seminole Tribe gambling agreement 04/28/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, April 28, 2010 9:44pm]
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