Documents: Gov. Scott Wanted Big Deal with Seminole Tribe
Gov. Rick Scott's staff nearly reached a multi-billion dollar deal with the Seminole Indian tribe that would have allowed it to add roulette and craps at its South Florida casinos, documents obtained by The Associated Press show.
The deal, which was scuttled last spring amid resistance from state legislators, also would have opened the door for the Seminoles to build a casino in the Fort Pierce area and would likely have blocked construction of any Las Vegas-style casinos in Miami for the next seven years.
In exchange, the Republican governor would have gotten the headline-grabbing news that it was the largest deal ever reached between a tribe and a state government. The figure was expected to be $2 billion over a seven-year period and the words "largest guarantee ever" were included on several documents instead of an actual amount. Another estimate placed the deal at $15 billion over 30 years.
The documents released by the Scott administration four months after the AP first requested them show that the incumbent governor is open to shifting his stance on gambling. Scott previously has been viewed as quiet supporter of opening major casinos in South Florida and had fostered ties with casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, the CEO of Las Vegas Sands Corp.
The deal proposed by the Scott administration would have eclipsed the $1 billion deal reached by then-Gov. Charlie Crist with the tribe. The 2010 compact approved by the Legislature allowed the tribe to gain a virtual monopoly on slot machines outside of South Florida and gave them table games such as blackjack at most of their facilities. But key portions of the deal expire next summer unless the tribe and the state craft a new agreement.
Scott spokesman Frank Collins contended that the documents mean nothing going forward. All negotiations are on hold pending the November election, in which Scott's main rival for re-election is Crist.
"There is no deal, so none of your documents are relevant," Collins said in an e-mail response to questions. "The compact expires in 2015 and the Legislature and other stakeholders will play important roles throughout this process. As such, the governor will take the time that's needed to get the best deal for Florida."
Seminole spokesman Gary Bitner said that "everything is still on the table when negotiations resume."
Under Florida law, dog and horse tracks and jai-alai frontons can also offer poker. Those in Broward and Miami-Dade counties can have slot machines.
The Seminoles, under their agreement with the state, can also offer card games like blackjack and baccarat at five of their seven establishments, including its Hard Rock Casinos near Fort Lauderdale and Tampa.
But games such as craps and roulette, two popular games in Las Vegas, are illegal everywhere.
The Scott administration began gearing up for negotiations with the Seminoles in late 2013, hiring outside lawyers to assist them in talks over whether to extend the existing compact between the tribe and state.
Documents released by the administration show Scott was willing to let the tribe gain the rights to more types of gambling, including roulette and craps at their South Florida casinos, and allow an additional casino in the Fort Pierce area if approved by legislators. If legislators failed to approve the Fort Pierce casino then the tribe could offer craps and roulette at its casino in Immokalee.
The deal would have had at least a seven-year guarantee that would have made it costly to the state to approve the construction of resort casinos before it expired.
Scott and the tribe were at one point very close to a final agreement.
In late April, the AP reported that the Scott administration approached top legislative leaders about the possibility of holding a special session to approve a new compact with the tribe. GOP leaders refused to say they would sign off on the package without learning most of the details. Other gambling interests, including those seeking to bring resort casinos to the state, also lobbied against it.
Sen. Bill Galvano, a Bradenton Republican who helped negotiate the 2010 deal, was among those approached by the Scott administration.
He said that he told the governor's aides that getting a large amount of money wouldn't be enough to win approval especially since the administration would need yes votes from both Republicans and Democrats. While Republicans hold a majority in the Legislature, many GOP legislators are social conservatives and won't support gambling expansion. That will likely still be the prevailing attitude regardless of who wins the governor's mansion.
"It's not an easy sell," Galvano said.
Gambling interests have been significant election donors. The Seminoles donated $1.26 million to Florida politicians in the last two years, including $500,000 to a political committee helping Scott's re-election and another $400,000 to the Republican Party of Florida. The tribe has given $95,000 to the Florida Democratic Party.
Scott's main rival in the race has not said much about the Seminoles or gambling during the campaign so far. A spokesman said Crist has an "open mind" about another deal with the tribe, but he also wants any money from a compact to go to education.