Fred Grimm

Fred Grimm: Florida’s dysfunctional politicians throw snake eyes

Floridians once again find themselves grappling with that great philosophical question of our time: Why is it that poker is an acceptable form of gambling but evil blackjack must be banished from our midst?

The answer’s worth a billion bucks.

When it adjourned early last week, the Florida Legislature kissed off a billion dollars — about what the state of Florida got out of its gaming pact with the Seminole Tribe these last five years.

Among the legislation left in the dust was Senate Bill 7088, which would have extended the expiring gambling deal for another year to give state and tribal negotiators more time to work out another long-term deal.

Unless lawmakers perform some legislative magic at next month’s special session, the Seminole pact dies on July 31. The key feature of the 2009 deal gave the Seminoles exclusive rights to offer blackjack, chemin de fer and baccarat table games at its Florida casinos.

But the legislation, for now, looks dead, another failure of the most dysfunctional state legislative session in memory — though to be fair to our beleaguered legislators, it should have been the governor doing the deal making. Could you imagine Bob Graham or Lawton Chiles or Jeb Bush or Charlie Crist ceding this job to some state senator?

Killing the compact won’t just rid our state of the three card games. The Seminoles had promised that if they struck a new long-term deal with the state, the tribe would spend $1.6 billion upgrading its Hard Rock Casinos in Hollywood and Tampa, building two new hotels and adding another 4,000 permanent jobs to the tribe’s payroll.

Last week, Seminole Tribal Council Chairman James Billie sent a letter to Gov. Rick Scott and the legislative leadership demanding that the state “fully comply with its obligation under the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act to commence good faith negotiations with the Seminole Tribe of Florida.”

Billie’s letter was a legal ploy that triggered a 180-day deadline for the state to begin good faith negotiations before the federal courts intervene. That ought to wake Scott from his apparent somnolence. Florida has been losing federal court fights with the Seminoles since the tribe opened its first bingo hall back in 1979. The Hard Rock Casinos are gaudy reminders of how poorly Florida has fared against Chief Billie and his lawyers.

All this, for what? To protect Floridians from the scourge of blackjack? No matter what happens in federal court, the Seminoles will retain slot machines and poker tables. It’s beyond me why state leaders who abide 795 poker tables at 41 casinos and racetracks would scuttle a billion dollar deal over blackjack or baccarat.

A new compact that allows, say, roulette and craps would surely be no more detrimental to Floridians than those soulless slots that suck up most of the state’s gambling dollars. At least roulette and craps demand some level of human interaction, as opposed to those hypnotic burping machines.

But when it comes to gambling policy in Florida, logic has never been a good bet.