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Saturday, Jul 26, 2014
Politics

Secret talks stand between lawmakers and gambling’s future


Published:

TALLAHASSEE — Figuring out the future of gambling in Florida is now on hold because of secret negotiations over how much of a cut the state will continue to get from the Seminole Tribe’s card games.

In 2010, the state and tribe agreed to a “compact” guaranteeing income to the state – $1 billion over five years – from the tribe’s gambling revenue. That’s in return for granting the tribe exclusive rights to offer blackjack and other card games.

The card-game provision expires in mid-2015. The tribe operates several centers, including Tampa’s Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino.

Consideration of overhaul legislation, including a clean-up of laws regulating gambling, has screeched to a halt because lawmakers say it first requires completion of a renegotiated revenue share.

Hanging in the balance, among other things, are billions of dollars of possible investment in the state, including two destination casinos in South Florida that a Senate proposal would have allowed.

And the tribe’s outside counsel has said not to assume that the compact terms will be appreciably better for the state than before.

No one, however, is saying anything substantive about the negotiations, though Gov. Rick Scott’s office and tribal representatives have begun work on a new deal.

It’s unlikely that, even if that deal is struck before the end of the legislative session on May 2, there will be enough time for approval by the Legislature before lawmakers go home.

Federal Indian gambling regulators also will have to sign off.

Scott’s office and the tribe’s spokesman decline to answer even procedural questions, such as who’s at the table, how many meetings have taken place or how close they are to reaching a deal.

Frank Collins, Scott’s communications director, has declined to reveal any details, instead falling back on the same statement as in previous weeks: “We will take the time needed to get the best deal for Floridians.”

Gary Bitner, the tribe’s spokesman, similarly declines to talk about negotiations.

House Democrats say they will vote against any new arrangement with the Seminoles unless it includes more games for South Florida pari-mutuel operations.

Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, acknowledged last week that a lack of consensus in his chamber over what to do about gambling is another stumbling block.

But he also told reporters Scott’s people haven’t told him when to be ready for the compact paperwork.

With the session more than half over, “I think we’re running out of time,” Gaetz said. “I think it would be very difficult for senators and representatives to properly vet and review a compact ... Not impossible, but very difficult.”

He called Scott “a great negotiator,” but said he didn’t know if Scott – a multi-millionaire former hospital-chain executive – has yet been involved in talks or left them to underlings.

“Anybody who goes to the negotiating table needs to come away with at least as much as he came to the table with, if not more,” Gaetz said. “I would hope it would be a better deal.”

Don’t necessarily count on it, said Barry Richard, the tribe’s Tallahassee lawyer. He told Tribune/Scripps there’s little room for the state to negotiate more money out of the arrangement.

The amount a tribe pays has to be a “fair value” for the exclusivity it’s getting, and the federal government will reject a deal if they think a tribe is paying more than it can afford.

The U.S. Department of the Interior has final sign-off authority on any deal. As for the state wanting more, “the message has been, ‘don’t push us on this,’” Richard said in an interview.

On Monday, he said he didn’t know any more on the status of talks.

“All I know is, the numbers guys are hammering away, trying to come to terms,” he said. “When the tribe wants my opinion on something, they’ll call me. But I’m not really engaged yet.”

jrosica@tampatrib.com

(850) 765-0807

Twitter: @jlrosicaTBO

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