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Economy / Business

State, Seminole Tribe at Odds on Card Games

Seminole Hard Rock building
Seminole Hard Rock Casino

The Seminole Tribe of Florida is refusing to fold on its push to continue hosting blackjack and baccarat at most of its casinos, but Gov. Rick Scott's administration is trying to shut down the lucrative "banked" card games.

Letters swapped Monday between the state Department of Business and Professional Regulation and the tribe indicate that the two sides may be heading toward a showdown later this year over the card games, part of a 20-year gambling "compact" inked in 2010.

Authorization of the card games is set to expire Friday. The compact gives the tribe 90 days to put an end to the card games, which include blackjack, baccarat and chemin de fer.

In a letter sent to tribal chief James Billie, Department of Business and Professional Regulation Secretary Ken Lawson asked the tribe "to discuss your plan and proposed timeline for the closure of banked card games at your tribal facilities."

Lawson also took note of the state's "great working relationship" with the tribe in his note to Billie, adding that "I look forward to continuing that good will."

The tribe quickly responded with a letter to the governor's office requesting mediation in the dispute.

"The tribe alleges the state has triggered the exception to the sunset provision for banked card games, as well as other compact remedies, by electing to permit other entities in Florida to conduct various types of banked card games," part of the letter reads.

The 2010 agreement gave the tribe exclusive rights to operate banked card games at five of its seven facilities for five years. In exchange, the Seminoles pledged to pay Florida a minimum of $1 billion over the same time period, an amount the tribe has exceeded.

The tribe and its lawyers contend that the state has allowed other gambling operators to operate banked card games, however, in violation of the exclusivity deal.

Billie sent Scott and state legislative leaders a "notice of commencement of compact dispute resolution procedures" last month outlining what the tribe considers violations of the agreement.

The June 24 letter included a claim the tribe has made for years regarding slot machines that look like blackjack and roulette and are authorized by state gambling regulators at non-tribal pari-mutuels. The slots operate essentially the same as the banked games, Billie wrote, the only difference being that the cards are electronic instead of paper, "a distinction we assert is without a difference."

The Seminoles also raised a new issue in last month's letter about whether player-banked card games in which the "bank" is another player instead of "the house" --- first authorized by state gambling regulators in 2011and now at play in at least three pari-mutuel facilities --- also violate the tribe's rights to exclusivity. "Banked" card games, such as blackjack, are typically considered those in which players bet against the house instead of each other.

The June request triggered a 30-day period --- which ended Sunday --- for negotiations that apparently went nowhere.

According to Monday's letter from the tribe's lawyers, "the parties met on July 16, 2015, but did not resolve the dispute."

Federal law gives both sides the right to request mediation if the dispute hasn't been resolved.

Lawmakers failed to pass a renewal of the compact or a new deal during this spring's legislative session. But some believed that the 90 days provided to the Seminoles to shut down the games would give enough time to reconsider the issue when the Legislature returns for committee meetings in the fall.

The tribe's push to keep running the games --- and possibly add others, such as craps and roulette --- comes as out-of-state casinos continue to seek a foothold in Florida.

But leading GOP senators, who have been on front on the issue, insist that no gambling legislation will be approved unless the compact is resolved first.

If the state refuses to renew the deal, it is almost certain the Seminoles will turn to the courts to resolve the matter.

Monday's exchanges, however, don't mean that litigation is a certainty, according to Senate Majority Leader Bill Galvano, who headed negotiations with the tribe while a House member in 2010.

"This is similar to the position we were in last time before we were able to enter into a deal. I think the state has significant leverage at this point, and there's nothing to preclude us from having those negotiations," Galvano, R-Bradenton, said.

--- News Service of Florida staff writer Brandon Larrabee contributed to this story.