Gov. Charlie Crist made a mistake in 2007 by signing a gambling compact with the Seminole Indian Tribe without legislative approval. But after months of legislative discussion, Crist's deal with the tribe is starting to look like Florida's best option to satisfy federal gaming law, guarantee immediate cash in hand and limit gambling. The Legislature would be wise to embrace it instead of pushing disparate agendas that risk lawsuits or a gross expansion of gambling.
Crist's compact, since invalidated by the Florida Supreme Court, gave the tribe exclusive rights for 25 years to offer blackjack and other house-banked card games in Florida in exchange for paying the state millions of dollars annually. Despite the court saying Crist overstepped his bounds by negotiating with the Seminoles without consulting the Legislature, the governor's deal is the de facto reality in Florida.
The tribe installed Vegas-style slot machines and added house-banked card games at its Hollywood and Tampa Hard Rock Casinos last year. Calls from Florida Attorney General Bill McCollum to the National Indian Gaming Commission to shut down the games following the Supreme Court's ruling have gone unanswered, suggesting federal authorities are hesitant to get involved. Meanwhile, the tribe continues to make payments to a state escrow account. It says it is doing so in good faith because it wants to sign the same or similar deal with the Legislature.
House Republicans want to scale back the deal. They would allow the Seminoles to continue to offer the slot machines at seven locations but halt blackjack and other house-banked card games. In exchange, the tribe would pay $100 million to the state annually. In an ideal world, it would be nice to put the genie back in the bottle.
Gambling has a deteriorating impact on a community, robbing entire families of resources lost at track windows or card tables. The last thing Florida should be doing in the midst of a recession and a 9.4 percent unemployment rate is encouraging people to gamble.
But the tribe is a sovereign nation unlikely to agree to the House deal, saying it doesn't provide significant exclusivity. Federal law says the only way a state can extract payments from Indian gaming enterprises is by granting them exclusive rights. Whether the federal government would side with the Seminoles or the House plan is unknown. The potential outcome could be the worst of all worlds: card games continue at the Indian casinos, Florida receives no money from them and the state faces expensive and protracted litigation.
On the other extreme, a bipartisan coalition of senators is pushing a plan just short of turning Florida into Nevada.
They want to lower the legal gambling age to 18 from 21; give the Seminoles full-scale casinos with roulette wheels and craps tables; give Broward and Miami-Dade parimutuels blackjack and card games and lower their tax rate on slot machines. And they want to allow the rest of the state's parimutuels — such as Derby Lane in St. Petersburg and Tampa Bay Downs in Oldsmar — to offer slot machines that pit players against each other (rather than Vegas-style where the slots are banked against the house). They contend the plan would raise $1 billion a year, including $400 million from the Seminoles.
But state economists warned last week that the estimate was overly optimistic in the recession. They estimate that despite giving non-Indian parimutuels new games, the lower tax rate would still lead to lower tax collections from those entities.
Crist's plan requires the Seminoles to pay at least $100 million a year. The tribe is on schedule to deposit $288 million by the end of 2010.
Any expansion of gambling — including the state's recent addition of the multistate Powerball game — is troubling. But the challenge here is to tailor a deal with the Seminoles that is narrow enough to satisfy federal law but assures Florida compensation. So far only one plan, the governor's, does both.