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Gov. Scott Holds the Cards in Gambling Deal

Does the governor have an ace up his sleeve?

House and Senate leaders are reaching consensus on a plan that would allow stand-alone casinos in South Florida, if voters approve. But the proposal hinges on whether Gov. Rick Scott, who's playing his cards close to his vest, seals a deal with the Seminole Tribe.

On Friday, Scott gave the first indication that negotiations with the tribe, critical to success in the House, are on track.

“Governor Scott is focused on renewing the state’s compact with the Seminoles to get the best deal for Floridians. Other gaming issues, including destination casinos, are being discussed by members of the Legislature, but the governor’s immediate focus is the future of the Seminole compact," Scott spokesman Frank Collins said.

A renewed deal with the Seminoles is a cornerstone of House Speaker Will Weatherford's two-pronged approach that would make two "destination resorts" --- hotel and convention centers with slot machines and perhaps other gambling activities --- possible in South Florida. The state's current deal with the tribe is slated to sunset in mid-2015.

And, Weatherford said, he wants negotiations with the tribe finalized this year, or there won't be any deal at all.

The Seminole Tribe of Florida spent nearly two decades trying to get the state to approve casinos on tribal lands in Broward County and Tampa. In 2010, Gov. Charlie Crist and the tribe struck a deal, authorized by the Legislature, which gave the Seminoles a 20-year contract to operate slot machines along with exclusive rights to operate banked card games like blackjack and baccarat for five years. In exchange, the Seminoles agreed to give the state a minimum $1 billion over five years but can halt the payments if slot machines exist anywhere outside of Broward and Miami-Dade counties, excluding those operated by other tribes. The compact also allows the tribe to reduce its payments if slot machines are allowed at any facilities that weren't already operating in Broward or Miami-Dade, except for Hialeah Race Track, when the deal was inked.

Time is at stake for hopes of a gambling deal as the 60-day legislative session, which begins March 4, approaches. Wrapping up a new deal with the Seminoles, who hope to add roulette and craps to their casinos, and giving lawmakers enough time to authorize it and any other gambling proposals could be a push, said Sen. Bill Galvano, who helped craft the 2010 agreement with the Seminoles that took years to finalize.

"It's not something that can be done very quickly unless we're just approving the cards to continue," Galvano, R-Bradenton, said. "The compact is the cornerstone of anything we build going forward and the governor plays a key role in the compact renegotiation process. So we have to give deference to the governor, and that could create a time issue for us going forward on other aspects of gaming."

Weatherford also wants to require that voters approve a constitutional amendment before casinos would be allowed, he told The News Service of Florida this week. The constitutional amendment also would require any future expansion of gambling to get statewide approval.

"Whatever bill we would pass this year would be contingent upon the passage of that constitutional amendment," Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, said. "The constitutional amendment would be for any future gaming expansion, and it would give the power back to the people to control that themselves but anything that would pass this session would be contingent upon the passage of that amendment."

Weatherford said he would prefer to limit gambling. "But I am also not burying my head in the sand. I have recognized that gaming is expanding without our control or direction, and that's a very dangerous place to be for the state of Florida," he said.

But the two chambers appear to be divided about a constitutional limit on gambling.

"It has been my understanding and what we're looking at doing in the Senate is a constitutional amendment which would require the voters' approval to expand gaming any further than this session does," Senate Gaming Committee Chairman Garrett Richter, a Naples banker, said Friday.

Richter said he expects to roll out a gambling proposal later this month that would allow for one destination resort each in Broward and Miami-Dade, something out-of-state gambling conglomerates --- and major political contributors --- like Las Vegas Sands and Genting Group have pushed for two years. Las Vegas Sands owner Sheldon Adelson, for example, contributed $250,000 to Scott's "Let's Get to Work" political committee.

Creation of the new casinos would impact revenues from the Seminoles, making the compact an indirect but integral component of any gambling proposal in the minds of Weatherford and other legislative leaders.

If he does nothing, Scott will effectively dash the hopes of any gambling legislation this year. And lawmakers in the House don't want to have to vote on the thorny expansion of gambling if they don't have to, meaning that, unlike the Senate, the chamber may wait for cues from Scott before advancing the issue.

Until Friday, Scott and his administration have been coy about progress, if any, with the Seminoles, who have contributed at least $500,000 to his political committee so far. Tribe lawyer Barry Richard said Friday he has not discussed the compact with Scott's office, and Gary Bitner, the tribe's spokesman, said he is unaware of any negotiations.

"It's my understanding that the governor isn't in a hurry to negotiate that right away," Richter told the News Service.

Scott is also balking at the idea of relinquishing control over gambling regulation, putting him at odds with Richter's soon-to-be-released proposal that will likely include a gaming commission.

The state has "already pursued two gaming commissions that didn’t work --- and the Governor doesn’t see any reason to pursue a third," Collins said in an e-mail.

Richter said he is trying to find "halfway ground" that would "give the governor some comfort" about removing gambling oversight from the Department of Business and Professional Regulation.

"We're trying to figure out how we can keep (DBPR) Secretary Ken Lawson in the loop on that," Richter said

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