A stalemate between the state and the Seminole Tribe of Florida about the tribe's right to offer blackjack and other games at its casinos appears to have thawed, according to a top Senate negotiator.
The renewed talks signal the possibility of a new deal before an October deadline. Without a deal, the state contends the tribe would be forced to shut down banked card games, including blackjack. The Seminoles maintain they have the right to keep the cards going even without an agreement, known as a "compact," with the state.
Senate Regulated Industries Chairman Rob Bradley told The News Service of Florida on Friday that he, his House counterpart and Gov. Rick Scott's top lawyer met with the tribe on the issue as recently as this week.
The latest discussions could be a significant turnaround from the standoff over the banked cards, part of a $1 billion deal inked five years ago by then-Gov. Charlie Crist. According to the 2010 agreement, the Seminoles have 90 days after the compact expired on July 31 to continue operating the banked card games. Both sides hope to finalize a new pact before that time period runs out. But legislative leaders have likened the complicated gambling deal --- which also affects the state's pari-mutuel industry, especially in Southeast Florida and the Tampa Bay area --- to a "three-dimensional game of chess."
Talks broke down during this spring's regular legislative session and languished, prompting the tribe late last month to request mediation in the dispute. Also last month, 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."
Scott's general counsel Tim Cerio, House Regulatory Affairs Chairman Jose Felix Diaz, R-Miami, and Bradley have held meetings with tribal representatives over the past three weeks, Bradley said. Scott's administration confirmed that negotiations are ongoing.
"We are making progress in discussions with the tribe. I'm hopeful that we can reach a point where we have something to offer to the membership to consider and debate," Bradley, R-Fleming Island, said Friday.
Relying on agents from both chambers and the governor's office "is a good model," Bradley said.
"If we're going to find a solution here, that's the way to do it," he said.
Before the original compact was finalized, the Legislature sued Crist for entering an agreement with the Seminoles without lawmakers' approval. The Florida Supreme Court later ruled that any deal between the state and the tribe requires the Legislature's blessing.
Senate Majority Leader Bill Galvano, who, as a House member was the Legislature's chief negotiator on the original compact five years ago, has maintained that Scott could enter an agreement with the tribe prior to the banked card-game deadline. Lawmakers could authorize the agreement when they return for the regular session in January, thus allowing the tribe to keep the games running without a legislative special session to ratify the compact, according to Galvano, R-Bradenton.
Specifics of the current talks remain under wraps, but the Seminoles have expressed an interest in adding roulette and craps and expanding the number of casinos --- now limited to five of their seven facilities --- where they can offer banked cards. In exchange, the state would want more than the $250 million minimum annual payment now guaranteed by the tribe. Any agreement, however, would have to include some sort of "exclusivity" for the tribe, and would have to be approved by the federal government.
"The tribe obviously wants to have as much exclusivity as possible. But you also have the political realities of finding a majority of votes in both houses and you have to get the governor satisfied," Bradley said.
The Seminoles did not comment on the negotiations.
The looming fall deadline boosts the odds for an accord, Bradley said.
"The closer we get to the deadline, the more pressure is put upon the parties to find a resolution. Deadlines are very useful in that way. I would anticipate that if a deal is to be had, it would be done within the deadlines contained in the agreements," he said.