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Gambling Deal Met With Scrutiny, Skepticism

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Far from a sure bet, Gov. Rick Scott's $3.1 billion gambling deal with the Seminole Tribe of Florida is getting a tepid response from some legislative leaders, virtually guaranteeing that the proposal could require major changes to win enough support for passage.

The agreement, signed by Scott and tribal Chairman James Billie on Monday, equates to a major expansion of gambling in Florida, bringing to the state craps and roulette for Seminole casinos and opening the door for slots and blackjack in areas where a previous agreement prohibited the games.

House Speaker Steve Crisafulli on Tuesday said legislative approval, required for the pact to take effect, would be a "heavy lift."

Senate President Andy Gardiner told reporters "there are no guarantees" that lawmakers will sign off on the deal, known as a "compact."

Scott said the compact, months in the making, "is a first step."

Even the Seminoles' chief negotiator, Jim Allen, called Monday's signed contract "the boundaries of an agreement."

Some lawmakers were more dubious about the proposal's future.

"I suspect that this compact is DOA," said Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater. "Because there are so many issues in it that different people are going to find problems with."

Under the 20-year compact signed Monday, the Seminoles could add craps and roulette to their seven casinos in exchange for $3.1 billion in payments to the state over seven years. The Seminoles could also expand blackjack games, now limited to five of their facilities, to all of their casinos.

The compact would also allow slot machines at the Palm Beach Kennel Club and at a new location in Miami-Dade County. And it would also permit horse and dog tracks to stop racing altogether --- known as "decoupling" --- while still maintaining cardroom or slot machine operations.

The agreement would also permit lawmakers to lower the tax rate on slot machines for Broward and Miami-Dade pari-mutuels and would allow those "racinos" to add blackjack, something now limited to tribal casinos, although on a small scale. The racinos would only be allowed to have a maximum of 15 blackjack tables, and bets would be capped at $15.

But, as they once did for slots, voters would have to sign off on the card games for the Miami-Dade and Broward county facilities.

The proposal also envisions a new, voter-approved gambling facility with slot machines in Miami-Dade County. Lawmakers plan to require a bid process to determine who would get the new gambling license, said House Regulatory Affairs Chairman Jose Felix Diaz, the chamber's chief negotiator on the compact.

The Miami lawyer also called Monday's agreement a framework for future discussions.

"There's still a lot to get this in a position for the Legislature to make a decision," Diaz said. "This bill sets parameters, but it doesn't define them."

In the signed compact, the Seminoles also pledge "to make significant investments" --- $1.8 billion --- in their gambling facilities, which Allen said would mostly be spent on non-gaming construction like hotel rooms.

Speaking to reporters after a Cabinet meeting Tuesday morning, Scott praised the deal, which is triple the current $1 billion the Seminoles agreed to pay in 2010 in exchange for exclusive rights to "banked" card games like blackjack.

But the governor conceded that the plan may morph before lawmakers leave their imprint on it.

"I'm just the first part of the process. Now it goes to the Legislature. I respect the decision of President Gardiner and Speaker Crisafulli. It goes to them," Scott said.

As lawmakers scrutinized the plan Tuesday, it became almost certain that the proposal would require what could be a major overhaul to get the requisite support from the GOP-dominated Legislature, including the historically gambling-averse House.

Key issues that could bog down passage of the compact --- which would also allow lottery tickets to be sold at gas pumps --- include allowing the Palm Beach County dog track to add slots, considered a snub to five other counties where voters have given slots a thumbs-up.

"I just have a problem picking one winner and five losers. I don't know how we can do that," Latvala said.

Sen. Garrett Richter, R-Naples, two years ago headed a committee charged with considering an ill-fated bill that could have paved the way for at least one "destination resort"-style casino in Florida.

More than 60 percent of voters in Lee County, which Richter represents, approved the addition of slots at the dog track in Bonita Springs. But the Seminoles could consider the Lee County facility a threat to their Immokalee casino.

The agreement inked by Scott is a "starting line," Richter said.

"I know that no matter where this ball stops rolling, wherever it stops rolling, somebody's going to be unhappy," he said. "And right now, where it started rolling , I'm unhappy that the Bonita Springs-Naples dog track doesn't have casinos."

By early Tuesday, lobbyists were already arming themselves for a major turf war when the legislative session kicks off on Jan. 12.

Ron Book, who represents tracks owned by the Havenick family in Bonita Springs and Miami, was outraged that the compact gave preference to "rich" Palm Beach County over more financially strapped regions, such as Gretna Racing in Gadsden County.

"If anybody thinks we're laying down our arms and going to sleep …. with something in there for rich Palm Beach County to the detriment of poor little Lee County and poor little Gretna, they're mistaken," Book said.

In a telephone interview Tuesday, Seminole Gaming CEO Allen, the tribe's chief negotiator, said the Seminoles "are receptive to concerns" that lawmakers may have regarding the compact, but would not specify which components the tribe would be willing to negotiate.

"I think it's very, very important not to negotiate anything on an individual basis. But once we have a cumulative list of concerns, at that particular time I would be able to have a comment on what we may or may not be able to find some flexibility for the state," Allen said. "We certainly understand that the process is not completed and there's a tremendous amount of work to navigate through the committees, and, eventually, all the leadership and all of the elected officials of the state."

The proposal would cap the number of slot machines the Seminoles are allowed to have at 6,000 at any one facility, with an average of 3,500 among its seven locations. Tables for banked card games, such as blackjack, would be capped at an average of 150, with a maximum of 300 at any one facility. Allen said none of the tribe's current casinos are at those maximums.

Scott and tribal leaders --- along with high-ranking GOP lawmakers --- have been negotiating for months, spurred by a component of a 2010 compact that gave the Seminoles exclusive rights to operate banked card games at most of their casinos. The card games portion of the larger, 20-year deal, expired this summer, but the Seminoles have continued to run the games.

As they did five years ago, lawmakers expect to handle the issue in two separate pieces of legislation --- one dealing with the compact and another focused on provisions related to the state's pari-mutuel industry.

Lawmakers in 2010 sued then-Gov. Charlie Crist for entering an agreement with the Seminoles without their approval, and the Florida Supreme Court decided that such a deal requires ratification by the Legislature.

Any deal between the tribe and the state also requires approval from the U.S. Department of the Interior, which oversees Indian gaming.

Gardiner cautioned that the agreement is anything but a done deal.

"As (Scott) knows, there are no guarantees in this process. We'll just have to wait and see, to see what happens,” Gardiner told reporters Tuesday morning. "Certainly, the compact piece is important. But … it's what else is there that potentially needs to be looked at."