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Lawmakers Could Hold Off on Seminole Gambling Deal

casino floor with slot machines
Courtesy Seminole Hard Rock Tampa

With a high-stakes gambling deal with the Seminole Tribe set to expire in July, lawmakers may not have to hold a special session to keep it from falling apart, according to a prominent senator who was instrumental in crafting the agreement, called a compact, five years ago.

Any deal between the state and the tribe requires the Legislature's authorization, but it's possible that Gov. Rick Scott could sign a new agreement and lawmakers could ratify it as late as January when they return for the 2016 regular session, Senate Majority Leader Bill Galvano said.

A provision in the 2010 compact that gives the Seminoles exclusive rights to operate banked card games, such as blackjack, at five of its seven casinos expires July 31 unless the state renews it or inks a new plan.

The compact also gives the tribe 90 days after the expiration date to shut down the card games, but the Seminoles have raised questions about whether they are required to stop the lucrative games in the absence of a new agreement.

It was believed that the Legislature, which failed to endorse a new compact with the tribe after negotiations stalled during the regular session that ended last week, would have to authorize a new deal before the 90-day period runs out for the agreement to be in effect. But Galvano believes otherwise.

"(Scott) could modify the existing agreement to expand the banked card games unilaterally, subject to ratification by the Legislature," Galvano, R-Bradenton, told The News Service of Florida.

The 90-day provision was included when the original compact was crafted in anticipation of the failure to reach a new agreement before the expiration date, Galvano said.

The Seminoles rejected an effort by Senate Regulated Industries Chairman Rob Bradley to extend the current compact for another year to give both sides more time to work out their differences.

House Majority Leader Dana Young, who is coordinating with Bradley in discussions with the tribe, said she was unaware of whether a compact could go into effect without the Legislature's approval.

"I haven't gotten into the weeds on that issue because I've just been involved in having conversations with representatives of the tribe. I've been looking at the substantive aspects of what could be included in a new compact," Young, R-Tampa, said. Galvano is more focused on "procedural issues," Young said.

None of the three lawmakers expect the compact to be part of a special session on the budget scheduled to begin June 1.

"It would be nice if we could say we could do it. I would say it's not realistic, but stranger things have happened," Young said.

After the regular session's abrupt end last week, Seminole leaders sent a letter to Scott, House Speaker Steve Crisafulli and Senate President Andy Gardiner requesting negotiations on the compact although the tribe had been engaged in informal talks with Bradley and Young off-and-on this spring.

"I consider the letter to be a non-event," Bradley, R-Fleming Island, said recently.

Like the original compact, whatever agreement is struck between the tribe and the state will almost certainly include, at a minimum, elements dealing with pari-mutuel facilities in Broward and Miami-Dade counties. Any changes to pari-mutuel laws --- such as tax rates or additional games for South Florida "racinos" that have slot machines --- would be dealt with in a separate gambling bill, as they were in 2010, Galvano said.

"History has shown us that you're going to have to address other aspects of the industry beyond the compact between the state and the Seminole tribe in order to even modify the relationship with the tribe," he said.

Passage of any effort to renew or expand the tribe's card games --- which reaped the state about $132 million last year --- by the historically gambling-averse House could hinge on support from Democrats, many of whom represent South Florida districts that include pari-mutuel facilities.

From a negotiating standpoint, the state could gain the upper hand by allowing the compact to run out.

"It's easy to say let it expire and let's renegotiate a new deal. But that means at some point in time it has to happen. And all people keep doing is moving the goal post. Now we're hearing the goalpost is really January. It's not July. It's not October. It's now January. The goal line continues to be moved," said Rep. Jared Moskowitz, a Coral Springs lawyer who is the House Democrats' point man on gambling. "At some point in time it's going to be apparent to everybody that we're either going to have to do something or that there is no will in the Legislature to do it."

Striking a balance between the tribe and the pari-mutuels that can get the Legislature's stamp of approval is a "three-dimensional game of chess," Galvano said.

"There has to be things of interest to other industry participants in order to get everyone's buy-in. That doesn't meant that everyone gets what they want completely. They didn't the last time. But it is an opportunity to look at the industry as a whole," he said. "I call it 'the Mary Poppins rule.' Sometimes it takes a spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down."

Letting the clock run out on the card portion of the compact could help both sides reach consensus, Bradley said.

"There's nothing like a deadline to motivate people to action," he said.


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