Legislature 2014

Governor starts negotiations with Seminole Tribe

Florida Gov. Rick Scott gives his State of the State address to a joint session of the Florida Legislature, Tuesday, March 4, 2014.
Florida Gov. Rick Scott gives his State of the State address to a joint session of the Florida Legislature, Tuesday, March 4, 2014.
Keeler, Scott / Tampa Bay Times

Herald/Times Tallahassee Bureau

TALLAHASSEE _ In a sign that Gov. Rick Scott is ready to control the debate over gambling’s future in Florida, the governor has begun negotiating a compact with the Seminole Tribe.

The compact, a legal agreement between the state and the tribe, was first signed by Gov. Charlie Crist and ratified by the Legislature in 2010, but parts of it expire next year. It guarantees that the tribe give the state about $234 million a year in revenue in exchange for the exclusive right to operate slot machines at four casinos outside of Miami-Dade and Broward. It also allows the tribe to operate banked card games — blackjack, chemin de fer and baccarat — at the Hard Rock casinos in Tampa and near Hollywood, plus three other casinos.

The portion of the agreement that relates to table games expires Aug. 1, 2015, and Scott could negotiate now or the negotiations could wait until next year after the election.

What the governor decides to do could determine the fate of gambling in Florida. He could renew the existing agreement and little will change. He could modify it to allow more competition for the tribe -- such as additional gambling at racinos in South Florida and the arrival of resort casinos - and accept less revenue from the tribe; or he could give the tribe additional games – such as roulette and craps – in return for higher guaranteed annual payments to the state treasury.

Scott would not give many details on the direction that he’s headed.

“We’re early, but we’re in the middle of negotiating the compact,” he said an exclusive interview with the Herald/Times on Tuesday. “I’m not going to talk about what we’re going to do in the middle of the negotiation.”

At the heart of the negotiations is the question of what to do about so-called “destination resort casinos” in South Florida. If the state allows for the Las Vegas-style casinos, sought by the Malaysia-based Genting Resorts World and the Las Vegas-based Sands Inc., the tribe can reduce its payments. But Scott could allow the Seminoles to maintain its casino monopoly in Tampa, and still receive payments in return.

The governor, who has met privately with Las Vegas Sands owner Sheldon Adelson and has received $250,000 in campaign donations from him, has never ruled out allowing the casino giants to come to Florida. He has always said he would want any expanded gambling to have local voter approval, however.

Seminole Tribe spokesman Gary Bitner confirmed that negotiations are underway.

“The Tribe looks forward to a positive outcome as a result of the negotiations,’’ Bitner said.

The current agreement has been tremendously successful for both the Seminoles and the state.

The tribe, a sovereign nation which cannot be forced to pay taxes, has used the agreement to operate a monopoly on slot machines games outside of Miami-Dade and Broward counties. That arrangement has help the tribe turn its Tampa-based Hard Rock casino into one of the most profitable in the country.

The arrangement also has been good to Florida’s treasury. This month, the tribe’s payments are expected to reach $1 billion guaranteed over five years, more than a year ahead of schedule, said Barry Richard, a Tallahassee lawyer for the Seminoles who helped to negotiate the 2010 compact.

Under the terms of the current compact, the tribe will continue payments, estimated at about $248 million next year, and will have exceeded payments to the state by the time one section of the compact expires in 2015.

As part of the complicated agreement, the tribe must pay additional money if revenues exceed certain thresholds. So as the tribe’s revenues increase, its payments to the state will also increase.

There is no indication when the governor and tribe expect to finish negotiations.

“Everybody would like to get it settled as quickly as possible,’’ Richard said Tuesday.

Meanwhile, legislative leaders appear ready to put any discussion of expanded gaming on hold for a few weeks as the governor continues his talks.

The House released its gaming bill on Monday, proposing an overhaul of state regulations but refraining from authorizing any additional casinos in Miami-Dade and Broward counties.

A key part of the bill was that it does not expand gambling and therefore does not violate the compact, said House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel.

“Our bill is more of a contraction on gaming than any type of expansion,” he said.

The Senate, however, has proposed a similar rewrite of gaming regulations but has proposed legislation that would create two new resort casinos.

The committee does not intend to vote on its bill for another two weeks, Senate Gaming Chairman Garrett Richter, R-Naples, said on Monday.

Meanwhile, Weatherford has said the House will not support additional gaming unless the governor completes a compact and voters approve a constitutional amendment in November. The amendment would require statewide voter approval for future gambling expansion.

The Seminoles have been generous to the political committees of lawmakers. They have given the governor’s political committee, Let’s Get to Work, $500,000 in contributions and they have given legislators and the Republican Party of Florida nearly $500,000 more.

Mary Ellen Klas can be reached at meklas@MiamiHerald.com and on Twitter @MaryEllenKlas

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