Florida House Speaker Larry Cretul's call for the federal government to fine or shut down games at the Seminole Indians' casinos is highly unorthodox and a bit of a grandstand play.
In seeking federal intervention, he broke faith with the Senate and governor and further eroded the possibility Florida will strike a deal with the tribe. But there could be a silver lining if Cretul's overture to the National Indian Gaming Commission brings clarity to an untenable situation.
Now, Florida is in the worst of all worlds. Gambling — from Vegas-style slots to blackjack — has expanded dramatically at Seminole casinos, but the state has not approved it and has yet to be able to spend a single penny from it. Meanwhile, Florida's revenue shortfall for next year is projected to be $2.6 billion and its homegrown gambling venues, the dog and horse tracks and jai alai frontons, have seen their share of the market dwindle.
There is plenty of blame to go around. Gov. Charlie Crist failed to get the Legislature's consent in 2007 when he signed his first deal with the Seminoles, and the Florida Supreme Court threw out the agreement a year later because of that oversight. The state has been at a severe disadvantage in negotiations ever since, because the Seminoles now have the machines in place and are making money even without the state's approval.
The Seminoles continue to operate as if that compact is in place, under the premise that it was printed in the Federal Register. They also have continued to honor the defunct compact's financial requirements, placing about $100 million a year into an escrow account for the state. But the state isn't spending the money until there is an agreement.
The parimutuels, some of which pushed the original statewide Constitutional amendment with full knowledge it would give the Seminoles expanded gambling, also share the blame. The politically powerful lobby opened this Pandora's box but then worked vehemently against a new compact until they won their own promises from the Legislature that they could expand gambling if there was a Seminole deal. Now the Legislature has declined to meet to consider a revised deal Crist negotiated this year.
Into this stalemate comes Cretul's letter to George Skibine, chairman of the National Indian Gaming Commission. The speaker asked Skibine to use his authority to level civil fines of up to $25,000 per violation against the Seminoles or to temporarily shut down the casinos until an agreement is reached. The speaker's office said Cretul had assurances from Skibine he would consider the matter.
The commission's involvement couldn't hurt. The state and the Seminoles have demonstrated over many years that they are incapable of coming to an agreement on their own. While any federal action could spawn another legal battle, it also could force more informed negotiations.