In a legislative session marked by divisive partisan politics and painful budget cuts, approval of a gambling compact with the Seminole Indian Tribe would raise revenue and resolve for now a controversy that has been festering for far too long. The latest agreement, which the Senate will consider today, would bring in $1.5 billion and leave for another day the broader questions about dramatically expanded gambling.
The deal is a palatable compromise that finally gives the state income from tribal gambling already taking place. It also represents admirable restraint by some lawmakers who considered turning Florida into a full-blown casino state to help solve the state's budget crisis.
Under the agreement, the Seminoles would have exclusive rights to offer Vegas-style slot machines outside Broward and Miami-Dade counties for 20 years. They could offer banked table games like blackjack at five of their seven casinos, including the Seminole Hard Rock Casino in Tampa, for five years. In exchange, the Seminoles would pay a total of $1 billion in the next five years, after which the state would decide whether to reauthorize table games.
Another $500 million would come from two other sources. The state would receive roughly $287 million the Seminoles have paid into an escrow account under the terms of a 2007 compact negotiated with Gov. Charlie Crist. The Florida Supreme Court overturned that agreement because the Legislature did not approve it. And the state could net slightly more revenue in years three, four and five of this latest deal if the Seminoles' revenue grows as many predict.
The money couldn't come at a better time as the Legislature tries to address a $3.2 billion shortfall in next year's budget. A first-year payment of $150 million, combined with the $287 million escrow account, means lawmakers would have roughly $437 million next year to help pay for Florida's needs.
The parimutuel industry — Florida's dog and horse tracks — is not happy. Lawmakers are expected to raise poker betting limits, allow bingo-style slot machines, extend hours and lower tax rates. The industry says that is nowhere near enough to compete with the Seminoles' less regulated offerings. But the industry is partly to blame for the situation, as it heavily backed the 2004 constitutional amendment to allow slot machines at parimutuels in Broward and Miami-Dade counties. That opened the door for the Seminoles, under federal law, to be able to provide even more options.
The Legislature should embrace this reasonable plan. In five years, when the state is in better financial shape, it will be a better time for more a rational consideration of gambling. This deal acknowledges the gambling that is already here and keeps reasonable limits on expansion.