The state of Florida is playing a disrespectful hand in not sitting down with the Seminole Tribe to discuss the pending expiration of a lucrative portion of the 2010 gambling compact. That agreement authorized the tribe to conduct banked card games such as blackjack at its casinos; the pact also called for negotiations in advance of that expiration.
The Seminoles operate some of the state's most well-known and popular casinos, including a flag-ship Seminole Casino in Hollywood. The state and the tribe signed a 20-year agreement in 2010 with the banked games portion expiring in five years.
A divided Florida Legislature couldn't come to an agreement on an extension of this part of the compact during last year's session or this year's, and now the ball's in Gov. Rick Scott's hands.
The tribe sent a five-page letter in late June informing the state that the Seminoles will keep blackjack and other games in place because Florida regulators violated the gambling compact by allowing banked card games elsewhere, thus breaking the pact's provision giving the tribe exclusive rights to those types of games.
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The letter, signed by Tribal Council Chairman James Billie, requested a meeting within 30 days under the compact's dispute resolution procedures, but the governor did not respond then — and the clock keeps winding down.
Should the two sides fail to reach an agreement, mediation will follow and then this will likely land in federal court. That could be very risky for the state, which could then lose control of this delicate situation. A court ruling in the Seminoles’ favor could result in the loss of hefty tribal payments to the state for the card games.
Gov. Scott attempted to broker a deal last year that would have doubled the $1 billion annual payments, but anti-gambling legislators blocked an agreement. They may soon be looking back on that as a very foolish move.
In the letter, the tribe cites language in the current compact that terminates the exclusive rights to banked games after five years unless authorization is renewed by both parties or “the State permits any other person, organization or entity [except another tribe ...] to conduct such games.”
The Seminoles contend that the state has allowed pari-mutuels to conduct electronic house-banked card games since 2011, and those qualify as banked games under the terms of the compact — a violation of the compact.
The tribe warned the state repeatedly about this contract violation, arguing the electronic and card versions of the games operate nearly the same and the difference between a machine and a human is “a distinction we assert...without a difference.”
Furthermore, the tribe argues state gambling regulators permitted cardrooms to conduct player-backed games, issuing rules that became effective in July 2014.
The state appears poised to let the five-year card game pact expire without any negotiations. Next comes the deadline on the dispute resolution procedures. Then, we expect, a federal court battle will follow.
Lawmakers who want to roll back gambling in Florida are playing an unwise hand since tribes hold special rights granted by the federal government — and states cannot supersede those rights.
Whether Florida would prevail in a federal court, we believe, is a long shot. The state would be best served by negotiations with the Seminoles.
This editorial first appeared in the Bradenton Herald, a McClacthy newspaper.