Seminole Tribe halts $350 million annual casino payment to Florida

The Tribe hand-delivered a letter to Gov. Ron DeSantis on Tuesday, saying that it will stop paying the state of Florida while the state and the Tribe settle a years-long dispute over multiplayer games.
The Seminole Hard Rock Casino and Hotel. [Tampa Bay Times]
The Seminole Hard Rock Casino and Hotel. [Tampa Bay Times]
Published May 14, 2019|Updated May 14, 2019

TALLAHASSEE -- The Seminole Tribe has notified the state that it will stop its $350 million annual casino payments to Florida effective immediately.

The tribe hand-delivered a letter to Gov. Ron DeSantis on Tuesday, saying that it will stop paying the state of Florida while the state and the Tribe settle a years-long dispute over multiplayer games.

“The Tribe will follow its agreement with the State and suspend its revenue share payments until the illegal banked card game issue is resolved,” Tribal Council Chairman Marcellus Osceola Jr. wrote. “The Tribe and the State have enjoyed a good relationship and we are hopeful that we will be able to reach an agreement that will strengthen that relationship for many years to come.”

Osceola was re-elected as chairman the day before the letter was delivered. He will start another four-year term in June.

A spokeswoman for Senate President Bill Galvano, who has led gambling deals with the tribe for his entire legislative career, said the news “comes as no surprise to the Senate” and will not impact the recently passed budget. The budget did not include appropriations for the Tribe this year.

“The tribe made it clear that payments would end after session,” Katie Betta wrote in an email. “For this reason, President Galvano made the decision in March to take the payments from the tribe out of the budget. “

She added that DeSantis will review the issue this summer, and that the Senate stands “ready to assist as needed.”

Under the current settlement made with former Gov. Rick Scott, the tribe has paid about $350 million a year to the state. But that agreement expires at the end of May.

Late in this year’s legislative session there was talk of allowing the Tribe to have rights over sports betting, which would have greatly increased state revenue. But a deal didn’t materialize before the end of the legislative session, and lawmakers said they ran out of time.

They had hoped to strike a 31-year deal with the tribe known as a “compact,” which would open the door for betting at Florida racetracks and jai-alai courts. But the specifics of the deal came together too late in the session, and they adjourned without coming to an agreement.

DeSantis told reporters after the session ended that he ran out of time.

“It is a 31-year commitment to the state. There is no way I could have done that,” he said. “The Senate leadership negotiated, which they have the right to do, but I’m the chief negotiator for the state so I’m going to look at ways we can get the best deal for Florida. I’d like to get an agreement and we’ll work on it and maybe we can get something done by the time they come back in September.”

John Lockwood, a lawyer who represents many of the state’s pari-mutuel facilities, said the tribe’s decision was “bizarre.” It has one of the best deals in the country when it comes to these issues, he said.

“They are making billions of dollars a year. They go to the Legislature to make the deal even better and when they don’t get their way, they decide to spit in the face of the executive branch,” he said. “It’s a pretty bold move on their part. I’m not sure what their end game is.”

Rep. Evan Jenne, a Dania Beach Democrat whose district includes the Seminole Tribe’s headquarters and Hard Rock Casino, said he could have guessed the tribe would back out eventually. Jenne said they’ve acted in good faith for years but grew frustrated with waiting on a deal that never happened.

“They’ve grown tired of being jerked around and being used for Republican campaign coffers,” Jenne said. “They’ve been used and abused by Republican leadership in the executive branch and legislative branch for campaign money only to not have anything reciprocated when it comes to signing the compact.”

Jenne said the $350 million hole will be felt, and that a lot of a “good, necessary programs” could face the chopping block in future budget years. He said he would support the governor’s calling a special session to come up with a compact, especially since he blames leadership for not acting quickly enough.

“This falls at the feet of leadership. This their fault. Period. The end. It’s a complete failure,” he said. “When you treat someone very poorly over that period of time, eventually it’s going to come to a point of no return. I certainly don’t blame the tribe.”