Seminoles Reject Senate, House Bills

Seminole officials recently said gambling bills proposed in the Florida Senate and House "do not make economic sense for the tribe." Tribal Council Chairman Marcellus Osceola (l.) said both bills would demand significant increases in revenue sharing without guarantees of exclusivity to justify higher payments. Furthermore, he said, the proposals might violate IGRA requirements.

In Florida, the Senate and House gambling bills remain far apart ahead of the March 7 start of the legislation session. But Seminole Tribe of Florida Tribal Council Chairman Marcellus Osceola recently informed Senate President Joe Negron and House Speaker Richard Corcoran both versions are unacceptable. “Unfortunately, both the Senate and House bills would require dramatic increases in the tribe’s payments without providing increases in the tribe’s exclusivity sufficient to justify those higher payments,” Osceola wrote.

He noted, “The Senate bill would require the same higher payments, including a guarantee, that were proposed in the 2015 compact, but would add numerous additional exceptions to the tribe’s exclusivity while broadly expanding gaming in Florida.” And while the House bill “is less objectionable in that that it does not propose as many new exceptions to the tribe’s exclusivity and does not broadly expand gaming in the state, it proposes major increases in the tribe’s payments, including a guarantee, but without providing the necessary additional value from the state.”

In conclusion, Osceola wrote, “Even if the tribe were to agree to either of the proposed compacts, it is almost certain that the compacts proposed in these bills would be disapproved by the federal government as violating the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act.” There, he said, “We have concluded that neither the Senate or House proposals make economic sense for the tribe.”

In fact, in June 2015, Paula Hart, director of the Office of Indian Gaming under the Obama Administration, informed the tribe that instead of advancing the compact agreed to with Governor Rick Scott in December 2015, the proposals legislators made last year—similar to the current measures—did not meet IGRA’s requirement that the state made a meaningful concession to the tribe. Scott and Seminole officials had worked out a deal that would have offered the tribe exclusive blackjack rights plus roulette and craps in exchange for $3 billion over seven years in revenue share to the state. The agreement failed to gain approval from lawmakers.

Hart wrote, “We are concerned that the bills may violate IGRA’s prohibition against taxing tribal gaming revenue and the department’s longstanding revenue sharing policy. We would be hard-pressed to envision a scenario where we could lawfully approve or otherwise allow a compact to go into effect that calls for increased revenue sharing and reductions in existing exclusivity.”

Osceola said the tribe is “willing to meet” with lawmakers and Scott’s office “to work out a mutually beneficial agreement.”

Meanwhile the Seminole Tribe has paid nearly $40 million in revenue sharing to the state of Florida in January and February, despite ongoing litigation over exclusive rights to offer blackjack. Stephen Lawson, spokesman for the Department of Business and Professional Regulation, which regulates gambling in the state, said the money will go into the General Revenue Fund. The Seminoles offer blackjack at five of their seven casinos, including the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in Tampa.

Last November Senior U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle ruled that regulators working under Scott broke the state’s agreement with the tribe by allowing certain Florida dog and horse racetracks to offer card games that were too similar to those that were supposed to be exclusive to Seminole casinos. The original 2010 deal generated more than $200 million per year in revenue sharing for the state. Although the agreement expired in 2015, the judge said the tribe can offer the games through 2030.

The state’s appeal to that ruling has been scheduled for mediation starting April 11, according to court dockets.