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A Times Editorial

In gambling fight, Florida outplayed

The Seminole Tribe has upped the ante in the fight over expanded gambling in defiance of the Florida Supreme Court. By rolling out blackjack and other table games at Tampa's Seminole Hard Rock Casino earlier this month, the Seminoles are betting no one will stop them even though the court invalidated the compact they signed with Gov. Charlie Crist in 2007.

They probably are right, despite Attorney General Bill McCollum's efforts to get the National Indian Gaming Commission to intervene. Finally, some legislative leaders are talking to the Seminoles, and the Legislature should approve a compact before the state loses any more ground or potential revenue.

This is what happens when governors exceed their authority. Crist cut the deal allowing expanded gambling by the tribe without involving the Legislature. Lawmakers sued, and in July the state Supreme Court struck down the compact because the Legislature did not approve it. By then, the Seminoles already had added table games in South Florida. Now they are pushing further by expanding in Tampa.

Antigambling sentiment remains strong in the Legislature. We also continue to oppose the expansion of gambling, but it is too late to tear up the compact and demand that the Seminoles take out their new games and machines. The National Indian Gaming Commission, despite McCollum's pleas, seems to be signaling it wants to see how the Legislature responds before it acts. Should lawmakers not approve a compact, Florida could find that the federal government will intervene and decide what the Seminoles can offer without giving the state any compensation or authority to regulate.

The key issue is the card games, not the Vegas-style slot machines now at the Seminoles' various casinos. Federal authorities allow Indian tribes to offer any form of gambling that is present elsewhere in a state — though they heavily encourage tribes to enter compacts with states to negotiate terms and regulation. In 2006, Florida voters approved the "Class III" slot machines for Broward and Miami-Dade horse and dog tracks if local voters concurred. They eventually did, setting compact negotiations into motion.

But federal law doesn't allow states to extract payments for gambling that is legal elsewhere in the state. It has to offer exclusive deals to tribes in exchange for any payments. So that's what Crist did. In exchange for at least $100-million annually and as much as $500-million in the future, the Seminoles were given exclusive rights to offer table games in their seven casinos. But Crist, despite promising to seek legislative approval, never did. Then-House Speaker Marco Rubio, a staunch gambling opponent, sued the governor for overstepping his authority. The Supreme Court agreed: "The governor has no authority to change or amend state law. Such power falls exclusively to the Legislature."

The Seminoles, meanwhile, have been acting as if the compact is still in force. Besides expanding card games in Tampa, they've deposited tens of millions of dollars with the state. That money sits in escrow awaiting legislators' action. Also in limbo is how the state might regulate the Seminoles' slot machines and card games — a matter the defunct compact anticipated the Legislature would settle.

Legislative leaders have won the authority to approve a compact, but they have little leverage left. Gambling has expanded. The only question now is whether lawmakers can cut a deal for Florida that ensures a reasonable regulation and a steady flow of income to a state that needs every dollar it can find.

In gambling fight, Florida outplayed 11/28/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, December 3, 2008 3:54pm]
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