Florida needs a compact with the Seminole Indian Tribe before it can reap a penny from the expansion of gambling at the tribe's casinos. That reality has been lost on too many state lawmakers, who have allowed Florida's struggling parimutuel industry to hijack the debate in an effort to expand gambling at dog and horse tracks and jai alai frontons statewide. Lawmakers need to reject the special-interest maneuvering and stick close to the governor's original deal with the tribe for at least $100 million annually. It remains the best plan so far to satisfy federal gaming law, limit gambling statewide and guarantee revenue for the state.
Federal law says the only way a state can extract payments from Indian gaming enterprises is by granting them exclusive rights. So that's what Crist did in 2007, three years after Florida voters approved a parimutuel-backed amendment to allow slot machines at tracks and frontons in Miami-Dade and Broward counties. Crist 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. But last year, the Florida Supreme Court correctly ruled that the deal should have been approved by the Legislature. By then, of course, the Seminoles already had installed the games.
The tribe has continued to act as if the compact is in effect, without any interference from the National Indian Gaming Commission. The tribe installed Vegas-style slot machines and added house-banked card games at its Hollywood and Tampa Hard Rock Casinos last year. It also opened an escrow account to hold would-be proceeds for the state. It's balance by 2010 is expected to be $288 million.
Meanwhile, the Legislature has allowed compact talks to become saddled with a wish list from parimutuels, including a push for 24-hour cardrooms on weekends, a lower tax rate on South Florida slot machines and a return of quarter horse racing.
While the parimutuels have made a compelling case that the state's 50 percent tax on slot machines should be lowered to 35 percent, neither that issue nor others should be tied to the Seminole compact. But the Legislature, so tied up in knots over parimutuel issues, could fail to approve a compact palatable to the Seminoles. If that happens, it is far from clear what happens next or how the federal government will respond.
That could lead to the worst outcome of all: card games continue at the Indian casinos, Florida receives no money from them and the state faces expensive and protracted litigation. Lawmakers need to agree on a Seminole compact, but the price should not be a dramatic expansion of gambling in a desperate attempt save the fading parimutuel industry.