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Crist and Seminoles Agree to Gambling Accord

Gov. Charlie Crist and the Seminole Tribe of Florida signed a gambling agreement Monday that expands games at tribal casinos and pumps an estimated $6.8 billion into state coffers over the next 20 years.

But the deal, the third such pact reached between the state and the tribe since December 2007, faces an uncertain future in the Florida Legislature, which must approve any compact reached between the governor and the tribe. But Crist said Monday he was confident lawmakers would approve the deal.

“The Seminole Tribe and my administration have negotiated in good faith to reach a fair agreement,” Crist said in a letter to Mitchell Cypress, chairman of the Seminole Tribal Council. “The Seminole Tribe receives the exclusivity of certain gaming that it deserves, while providing for revenue sharing between the Tribe and the state.”

Crist reached a compact agreement with the tribe in 2007, but he didn’t include the Legislature in his negotiations. Lawmakers then sued, and the Supreme Court agreed that the Legislature should have been included and threw out the old deal.

Lawmakers subsequently crafted their own plan for a Seminole compact earlier this year, but the Tribe balked at the proposal.

The compact signed Monday allows the Seminoles to offer Las Vegas-style slot machines, black jack, baccarat and other banked card games at its seven casinos across the state including Hard Rock Cafes in Hollywood and Tampa.

Meanwhile the agreement restricts higher stakes slot machines at non-Indian pari-mutuels to seven horse tracks, dog tracks and jai alai frontons in Broward and Miami-Dade Counties, where casino-style gambling is allowed under the constitution, in certain circumstances.

The pact, however, extends cardroom hours and allows no-limit poker at non-Indian pari-mutuels across the state. Finally, the compact allows the expansion of “historic racing games” at more than 300 sites statewide.

The compact calls for the Seminoles to pay a minimum of $150 million a year to the state. Additional payments would be made on a percentage basis based on net revenues up to 25 percent of revenues over $2.25 billion. Proceeds would be earmarked for education.

Facing a Monday deadline, tribal leaders, governor’s office staff and legislative leaders met over the past several weeks to come up with a proposal amenable to the tribe yet palatable to House members, who are more reluctant than their Senate counterparts to expand gaming

“We appreciate the hard work all parties have invested in efforts to reach an agreement that puts the public interest first,” said House Speaker Larry Cretul, R-Ocala. “The public, House members, and staff will now have an opportunity to review the proposed agreement, signed by the Tribe and Gov. Crist, and to recommend a future course of action.”

Compared to the more conservative proposal crafted by lawmakers earlier this year, the new agreement would allow the tribe to offer black jack and baccarat at more venues.

The new proposal would continue to allow the tribe to operate card games at its two Hard Rock Cafes in Tampa and Hollywood and at its casino in Broward. The compact also allows the tribe to keep card games that are already being offered at its Immokalee facility and add the games to its Brighton and Big Cypress casinos.

Rep. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, and the lead House negotiator said last week that lawmakers would likely be willing to allow card games to remain at Immokalee if other parts of the deal were acceptable. Expanding card games at Brighton and Big Cypress, however, would be a much tougher sell.

Rep. Ron Saunders, D-Key West, the ranking Democratic member on the House education budget committee, said Republican legislators would be making a mistake if they failed to approve a gambling deal this fall.

The Seminole Tribe is expected to get a go-ahead from the federal government for a more modest compact if legislators continue to balk -- leaving the state with no extra revenue.

“It's a dangerous situation if Republican legislators start to play a game of chicken with the Tribe on this," Saunders said. "If it goes away, the Seminoles will get some gaming from the feds and the state will be left with nothing."

Saunders conceded that lawmakers from both parties may still have concerns about the scope of the gambling expansion, along with its potential impact on already struggling horse and dog tracks and jai-alai frontons.

But the extra gambling cash -- whose first installment would top $160 million, because of payments already made -- is designated for education, and could help schools offset budget cuts already in place across most Florida counties, or easing the level of property tax increases being proposed.

"If Republicans are real about their commitment to schools and lower property taxes, now is the time for them to put money where their mouths are," Saunders said.

Not included in the plan was a provision to allow the Palm Beach Kennel Club to offer Class III games, which came as a disappointment to Pat Rooney Jr., Club president.

“We need to do a better job of selling (to lawmakers) the jobs we bring in and the taxes we pay,” Rooney said Monday.

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