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Lawmakers Shoot Down Crist Gaming Compact

In a stunning defeat for Gov. Charlie Crist, a panel of lawmakers unanimously quashed a compact negotiated by the governor and the Seminole Tribe of Florida that would allow the tribe to offer certain card games and give the state a cut of the proceeds.

The compact has been a major priority for Crist, who first negotiated a deal with the tribe in 2007. But the Supreme Court invalidated that compact and said the Legislature must approve any financial deal with the Seminoles. After months of working on a replacement that would be suitable to lawmakers, the governor was shot down again.
Crist said he was disappointed, but remained characteristically sunny.

“We obviously have a long way to go before the end of session, so there is plenty of time for the Florida Legislature to approve a plan that would direct billions of dollars to Florida schools for years to come,” he said in a release.

The Legislature approved compact legislation in the waning hours of the 2009 legislative session authorizing Crist to negotiate with the tribe. But Crist took the proposal further than what lawmakers had initially approved.

According to estimates from the Office of Economic and Demographic Research released earlier this year, the governor's deal could bring in $811.7 million by fiscal year 2013. The deal as the Legislature envisioned it would bring in $802 million.

But many lawmakers were squeamish at the massive expansion of gaming that Crist proposed, and others felt that the compact did not offer substantial regulation of the tribal gaming facilities.

The major difference between the Crist deal and the legislative parameters is that the governor's compact would expand the availability of banked card games like blackjack to all seven Seminole casinos in the state, while the Legislature originally only wanted to extend that offer to casinos in Broward and Hillsborough counties.

Bill Galvano, the chairman of the Select Committee on Seminole Indian Compact Review, had said prior to Thursday's vote that the governor's deal might be hard for members to swallow given that there was initial push-back to even pass the proposal in the spring.

The committee met for less than 10 minutes and did not debate the compact. Galvano also urged them to vote no as he explained the compact and said it “came up short.” Lawmakers responded with a 17-0 vote against the governor's compact.

“I think it's a very strong message, very strong message,” Galvano said after the vote.

Galvano said that despite the vote he remains optimistic that there will be some sort of compact in the future and is open to meeting with the tribe. However, he cautioned that it was difficult to negotiate in good faith with the Seminoles because they have continued to offer blackjack and other games at their casinos as was authorized in the 2007 compact that the Supreme Court invalidated.

Barry Richard, an attorney for the tribe said the Seminoles were disappointed with the vote and were still willing to negotiate, but that the matter may have to be settled by the U.S. Department of the Interior. The tribe has said it will continue to offer the games since they are not governed by the state. Only under a compact would the state receive money from the tribal casinos.

Richard also said the original deal put forth by the Legislature was unacceptable to the Seminoles.

“Every time the Legislature has asked the tribe to do something including coming up with $100 million, they have done it,” Richard said.

In a separate action, the committee did approve a deal for pari-mutuel facilities, the main competitors of the Seminole casinos. The bill contains sweeteners for the pari-mutuels like tracks and jai alai frontons, which say they have been hurt by the tribal gaming facilities.

As of July 1, 2010, the pari-mutuels would be allowed to offer no limit poker in card rooms and extend card room operations from 12 hours per day to 18 hours per day Monday through Friday, and run for 24 hours on Saturday and Sunday. It would also gradually reduce the annual slot machine license fee from $3 million to $2 million.

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