1. Florida Politics

Seminole Tribe meets with governor as gaming deadline looms

Published Oct. 14, 2015

TALLAHASSEE — With an Oct. 31 deadline looming that would officially end the current multi-million dollar compact between the state and the Seminole Tribe, Gov. Rick Scott secretly met with top officials of the Hard Rock Casinos in his office Wednesday morning.

Officials from the tribe, which own the Hard Rock Casinos in Tampa and Hollywood, flew to Tallahassee on their private jet for the meeting, which the governor had scheduled but did not include on his daily schedule.

A key provision of the 2010 compact that allows the tribe to operate table games such as blackjack, baccarat and chemin de fer in exchange for payments to the state, expired at the end of July but, according to the agreement, it remains in force for another 90 days — until Oct. 31.

Legislators spent this summer and fall negotiating whether to renew, amend or expand the compact, which must be signed by the governor and approved by the legislature, said Rep. Jose Felix Diaz, the lead negotiator for the House.

They discussed increasing the revenue to the state by guaranteeing a yearly payment of $200 million to $400 million, based on revenues, over time frames that range from 7 to 20 years, and numerous other options, but they have approved no details, he said.

"We met a month ago to see if we could agree on the 30,000-foot issues and we didn't agree," Diaz told the Times/Herald. Scott's legal staff has attended most of the negotiations, he said.

Diaz, a Miami Republican who chairs the House Regulated Affairs Committee, said the matter is complicated because legislators are divided over most of the issues and any final agreement must appease those who want to protect their local parimutuels, tamp down gaming expansion or use the compact to generate more state revenue.

"I think this deal lives and dies in the drafting stage,'' he said. "A compact, a compact extension, or an amendment will require significant lawyering."

For example, while there is a general agreement between legislators and the tribe that the state could allow for the parimutuels to phase out or end live racing, known as decoupling, there is no agreement on what those provisions would look like.

Lawmakers are also divided over using the compact to allow for the expansion of other gaming options in Florida — such as providing slot machines at Palm Beach Kennel Club and Flagler Racetrack in exchange for giving the tribe added games, such as craps and roulette.

House Speaker Steve Crisafulli, R-Merritt Island, told reporters at the Associated Press Planning Day conference in Tallahassee on Wednesday that he would be satisfied if the compact is not renewed — a position that both he and Senate President Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, advanced last year.

But that creates additional obstacles, Diaz explained, because the compact has effectively served as a check on gaming expansion.

"The compact creates a steady business climate for the existing footprint" and that allows for a predictable revenue stream for both the tribe and the parimutuel companies that operate dog racing, jai-alai and horse racing, Diaz said. But it also "definitely creates barriers to reckless expansion of gaming."

He said the Seminoles oppose the development of any destination resort casino in Miami-Dade or Broward counties, and the only way he could see Las Vegas-style gaming come to Florida is if the compact was not renewed. But if the state expands gambling, federal Indian gaming law allows for the tribe to also operate the same games without any requirement to share revenues with the state.

"If you are not for the expansion of gaming then you don't want a Las Vegas strip in Florida because three casinos become 10," he said.

The tribe has previously said it will ignore the October deadline and not only continue operating the games but also continue sending revenue-sharing payments to the state.

Since the first compact was signed with the state in 2010, the tribe has shared more than $1 billion in revenue in exchange for exclusive operation of its card games, and slot machines at its five casinos outside of South Florida.

The Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation asked the tribe to provide them with a "timeline for the closure of banked card games at your tribal facilities" but the tribe has failed to do so.

The tribe argues that it is entitled to continue operating the banked games under the federal Indian Gaming Regulatory Act because the state allows electronic versions of blackjack at racinos in South Florida in violation of the exclusivity provisions of the compact.

Diaz said that it is unlikely the issues will be resolved before the regular session in January. Meanwhile, the gaming industry has been ramping up campaign contributions in anticipation of the debate.

The Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee received $65,000 from parimutuels in the last fundraising quarter, from July through September, and another $100,000 from Disney — which opposes any expansion of gaming for the Seminole Tribe. Sen. Joe Negron's political committee, Treasure Coast Alliance, received $60,000 in gaming money for the quarter. And Diaz's political committee, Rebuild Florida, received $60,000 from gaming interests in the quarter.

The governor's office confirmed the meeting with Seminole officials Wednesday, shortly after the governor addressed reporters at the Capitol, but did not answer why it was excluded from his public calendar.

His spokeswoman, Jackie Schutz, said the governor is in no rush to reach an agreement.

"The governor will continue to take the time that's needed to get the best deal for the state,'' she said.

Miami Herald staff writer Steve Rothaus contributed. Contact Mary Ellen Klas at meklas@miamiherald.com or (850) 222-3095. Follow @MaryEllenKlas.


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