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Tallahasee’s Weekly Roundup: Deal or No Deal?

Gov. Charlie Crist and the Seminole Tribe of Florida bet this week that the third time would be the charm for their gambling agreement, which expands games at tribal casinos and would pump an estimated $6.8 billion into state coffers over the next 20 years.

But the deal, the third attempt by the state to reach an accord with the tribe since December 2007, faces an uncertain future in the Florida Legislature, which must approve it. Crist, who didn't include the Legislature in his 2007 negotiations with the tribe, said this week he was confident lawmakers would approve the deal, but House and Senate leaders were just happy to have a seat at the table when the chips were all in.

The first time Crist and the tribe struck a deal, lawmakers weren’t involved and so they sued. The Supreme Court agreed that the Legislature should have been included and threw out the plan. Lawmakers subsequently crafted their own plan for a Seminole compact earlier this year, but the Tribe balked at the proposal.

The new hand 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 card room 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.

As it was the first time at the table, the trump card in the deal for Crist was the minimum of $150 million the pact calls for the Seminoles to pay 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. But if the Legislature folds on the deal again this fall, the Seminoles are expected to get a go-ahead from the federal government for a more modest compact -- leaving the state with no extra revenue.

BETTING ON A SPECIAL SESSION

While the governor and the Seminole Tribe were betting on a special session this fall to approve their deal, a number of interest groups hoped their issues might also be in the cards.

Among them were supporters of the controversial proposed SunRail commuter train in Orlando, who are hoping to get the wheels of the plan moving again when lawmakers are back in Tallahassee. Sen. Lee Constantine, R-Altamonte Springs, who sponsored the unsuccessful legislation last session that would have allowed the Department of Transportation to purchase 61 miles of existing freight rail tracks from CSX Corp., told the News Service of Florida this week that that he would like to see SunRail on the table during a Seminole special session.

Constantine said SunRail should be among the agenda items in the speculated special session because so much has changed about the issue since lawmakers defeated it. Among the differences, he said, are the possibility of using federal economic stimulus money for the track purchase instead of state dollars and the funding woes of Tri-Rail, which nearly caused the system to cut service this summer.

The prospect of a special session also fueled hopes of supporters looking to open Florida waters to offshore drilling in exchange for potentially billions of dollars from oil companies, though the Senate appeared wary this week of digging into the controversial drilling proposal during the Seminole session.

"I'm open to the governor's suggestions, but it's important enough for us to take the time we need," said Sen. Mike Haridopolos, R-Melbourne, who is in line to be Senate president in 2010. "If we can answer everyone's concerns, I think we could move ahead in October. But if we can't, it's going to have to wait until regular session."

Though lawmakers were hesitant to go all in with drilling during the special session, Crist raised the possibility himself this week, calling it “prudent.”

Opponents of the Seminole compact were also betting on the special session this week. While Crist and the tribe again celebrated having reached an agreement on Indian gaming and skeptical lawmakers begin weighing the details, critics of the deal also began surfacing, not least of which are the tracks who aren't included.

The parent company of two Florida tracks that don't get any help from the compact blasted the deal this week, while opponents of expanding gambling, such as Florida Baptists, began rallying people to speak out against it, creating the prospect of some odd bedfellow opponents to legislative approval, proving that all’s fair in legislating and gambling.

AN INTERESTING CONFLICT

As the players in the Seminole gaming compact were backing away from the table after negotiating another deal, the tables were turned on utility regulators this week as its deliberations on a proposed $1.3 billion rate increase request from the state’s largest public power company became a sideshow of conflict-of-interest charges. The company, Florida Power & Light, has not been accused of any wrongdoing, but a top Public Service Commission staffer recently admitted to mingling with an executive of the company and the state's law enforcement agency said this week that it was reviewing a conflict-of-interest complaint made against the panel.

The swirl compelled PSC chairman Matthew Carter to defend himself, saying that his three-and-a-half year tenure on the commission demonstrates "independence and freedom from external bias." But PSC Director of Strategic Analysis and Governmental Affairs Ryder Rudd was removed from all dockets involving FPL, which serves South Florida and most of the Atlantic Coast, because he told commissioners last that he and his wife attended a May 2 Kentucky Derby party at FPL vice president Ed Tancer's Palm Beach Gardens home.

News of the party, which was two months after FPL submitted its request for a $1.3 billion rate increase, caused Carter to delay the start of the ongoing FPL hearings and call for an internal review, because he said at the time "due process was on the line."

The internal review released this week found Rudd exercised "poor judgment" in attending the party, but couldn’t determine if he broke commission rules by failing to reimburse the executive for food and drink consumed at the party, which Rudd and Tancer both said occurred. Commissioner Nathan Skop, who originally revealed the whole affair and called for Rudd to resign, was not satisfied by the report, saying that Rudd should be fired.

Either way, the report was obscured because the Florida Department of Law Enforcement confirmed this week that the department was acting on a complaint that the regulators are too close to companies they oversee. Neither FDLE nor the PSC would confirm if the law enforcement agency's review was linked to the Rudd issue, but Carter said late this week that the charges were from "special interests" and identified several votes he's made against FPL.

FPL not only has the base rate request before the PSC this fall, but also a $1.6 billion underground natural gas pipeline and a nuclear cost recovery hearing for the construction of two Turkey Point units.

FPL officials pointed out nobody has accused the company of any wrongdoing, and said they hope the accusations won't sway the commission against its proposals. But with two commission seats up for appointment next year by a governor who wants to be elected U.S. Senator next year, it remains to be seen how safe a bet that is.

STORY OF THE WEEK: Just before the clock ran out, Gov. Charlie Crist and the Seminole Indian Tribe struck a deal on a gaming compact and bets began on when a special session to approve the pact would be held -- and what else might be on the agenda. Also in this week’s cards was a swirl of conflict-of-interest charges at the Public Service Commission.

QUOTE OF THE WEEK: “Will the Legislature cave once again to the big gambling interests? Who knows. What's certain, the next four to six weeks will be a huge tug of war, for sure," Florida Baptist Convention legislative consultant and gaming opponent Bill Bunkley in a story in the Florida Baptist Witness, surmising the mood in a sleepy summer Capitol gearing up for a fired-up fall.

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