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House, Senate Negotiators Strike Seminole Deal

House and Senate negotiators struck a gaming deal Wednesday night that would permit full card games such as blackjack and baccarat at Seminole casinos in Broward and Hillsborough counties and give the state a cut of the tribe’s revenue.

The deal came after negotiations between the two chambers – up against a Friday deadline if the state was going to get any badly needed revenue from the tribe - appeared to break down earlier in the day. On Wednesday morning, the Senate backed off from a previous offer that would have limited banked card games to select casinos and instead proposed that the tribe should offer the games at all of their properties.

But by 6 p.m. Wednesday night, the Senate caved to what Rep. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, called his “final offer.”

“We think it's important to have these resources to help us get through the next year and couple years,” said Sen. JD Alexander, who served as the Senate's lead negotiator.

The Legislature has been trying to work out a way to give the Seminole tribe something in exchange for additional state revenue, badly needed in a year when lawmakers were $6 billion below last year’s spending as they started to craft the budget. As the regular session went into overtime, the gaming issue was separated from the budget a bit with the agreement that if the two chambers could work out a compact to offer the tribe, any revenue that it brought in would go to bolster the state’s reserves, facing the prospect of a depleted reserve account in a shortfall year.

The compromise would permit banked card games such as blackjack and baccarat at Seminole casinos in Broward and Hillsborough counties, but not at the tribe's five other facilities. It would give the tribe exclusive rights to class three slot machines outside of Miami-Dade and Broward counties.

The deal also leaves open the door for additional games at pari-mutuel facilities – dog and horse tracks and jai alai frontons - though only with legislative approval and a local referendum. Pari-mutuel owners have said that they cannot compete with Indian-run casinos if they are not permitted to offer the same games.

Lawmakers estimate the deal would bring in about $300 million in the first year, with a $150 million guarantee.

Gov. Charlie Crist and the Seminoles had previously inked a deal in November 2007 that gave the tribe the right to operate banked card games and high stakes slot machines at its casinos. The tribe, in turn, promised millions of dollars and thousands of jobs for Floridians.But the Florida Supreme Court said Crist overstepped when he negotiated an agreement with the Seminoles without the Legislature. So, the Legislature has gone back to examine potential ways to enter a revenue sharing agreement with the tribe.

After Wednesday night's meeting, Crist said he “couldn't be happier” about the chambers' deal.

“This is a victory for the children of Florida and for education and I couldn't be more pleased,” Crist said.

The agreement will be voted on by the Legislature later this week when lawmakers return to Tallahassee, and there's still a chance the whole thing could fall apart.

“For some members, they're not going to swallow it,” Galvano said, noting he does not expect a unanimous vote.

The measure, if approved, would allow Crist to renegotiate the compact with the Seminole Tribe, under the Legislature’s parameters and subject to its ratification.

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