Gov. Charlie Crist rolled the dice and lost. The Florida Supreme Court's unanimous opinion that the governor exceeded his authority by signing a compact with the Seminole Tribe allowing gambling that is otherwise illegal was not entirely unexpected. Now it is up to the governor and the Legislature to negotiate and come to a consensus that should have been reached before the Seminoles installed new slot machines and blackjack tables.
At this point, the reasonable options appear to be limited. Gambling opponents should not expect the Seminoles to start removing their Vegas-style slots from their Tampa casino or anywhere else. The court opinion did not make an issue of those machines, which are legal in Broward and Miami-Dade horse and dog tracks and jai-alai frontons. It focused on the card games that the Seminoles were given the exclusive authority to run even though they are illegal elsewhere. As the opinion written by outgoing Justice Raoul G. Cantero III succinctly states: "The governor has no authority to change or amend state law. Such power falls exclusively to the Legislature."
The Seminoles could take this fight to federal court, but that is their call. Crist should not join them. Instead, the governor should consult with Senate President Ken Pruitt and House Speaker Marco Rubio on how best to resolve this long-running issue without jeopardizing the millions the state expects to receive from the tribe or providing an opening for the federal government to make a decision that should be made in Florida.
As we previously have said, while we continue to oppose the expansion of gambling, the agreement itself has some merit. Without such a deal, it is possible the federal government could intervene, grant the tribe expanded gambling and leave the state unable to profit from it. The Seminoles already have paid the state $50-million, which has not been spent, and annual payments could rise toward $500-million in the future. Frankly, the state desperately needs the cash.
The practical solution would be for the Legislature to ratify the compact Crist negotiated with the Seminoles. Rubio, who warned Crist last year about acting without the Legislature and initiated the lawsuit, opposes the expansion of gambling and is not likely to quietly go along. Yet it will be difficult to pull one or two strings out of the compact without unraveling it all. The Seminoles are sharing their revenue because they have an exclusive right to games such as blackjack and baccarat. There is a strong disincentive for expanding gambling elsewhere, because the tribe would no longer be required to share revenue if gambling beyond the scope of this deal is permitted.
This messy situation is what happens when a governor says one thing about working with a co-equal branch of government and does another. Crist bet against the House and lost. But nobody wins if the governor and the Legislature don't promptly reach an agreement that should have been made before the compact with the Seminoles was signed.