Seminoles, Scott Hold Secret Meeting

Seminole tribal officials recently flew to Tallahassee on their private jet to secretly meet with Florida Governor Rick Scott (l.) about the Seminole Compact set to expire October 31. Current compact provisions grant the tribe exclusive rights to banked card games in exchange for $1 billion over five years.

Florida Governor Rick Scott recently held a secret meeting with top officials of the Seminole Tribe of Florida which owns Hard Rock Casinos in Hollywood and Tampa. It’s the latest move in negotiations between the state and tribe, as their current multimillion dollar compact faces an October 31 deadline. The key issue of the 2010 compact allows the tribe to operate table games such as blackjack at five casinos outside South Florida in exchange for paying the state billion over five years. That provision expired at the end of July but an extension grants another 90 days. Scott’s spokeswoman, Jackie Schutz, said, “The governor will continue to take the time that’s needed to get the best deal for the state.”

Tribal officials flew to Tallahassee on their private jet to talk to the governor, who must sign a new compact after it’s approved by the legislature. Rep. Jose Felix Diaz, chair of the House Regulated Affairs Committee, said lawmakers and Scott’s legal staff met over the summer and fall to discuss whether to renew, amend or expand the compact, but no details have been approved. “We met a month ago to see if we could agree on the 30-thousand-foot issues and we didn’t agree,” Diaz said. He noted legislators are divided over most of the issues and any final agreement must please lawmakers who want to protect their local parimutuels, rein in gaming expansion or generate more state revenue. “I think this deal lives and dies in the drafting stage. A compact, a compact extension, or an amendment will require significant lawyering,” Diaz stated.

Specifically, lawmakers and the Seminoles generally agree that the state could allow parimutuels to decouple or end live racing, but the two sides do not agree on the provisions. Racehorse owners, trainers and breeders are against decoupling, leading the Florida Horseman’s Benevolent and Protective Association, the Florida Quarter Horse Racing Association and other industry groups to launch a new website, to educate the public and lawmakers on the potentially negative effects of decoupling.

FHBPA President Bill White said, “The reason we even have slot machines in Florida today is because voters agreed to give our successful horse racing industry a fighting chance to compete against other states–-states that legislate casino revenue as an incentive for their own horse racing industries. Now casino-only interests want to jettison their prior commitment to Florida’s economy and just forget all of our horse racing businesses and the thousands of people they employ.”

In addition, lawmakers are split over using the compact to allow expanding other gaming options in Florida, including offering slot machines at Palm Beach Kennel Club and Flagler Racetrack in exchange for giving the tribe added games, such as craps and roulette.

Diaz noted, “The compact creates a steady business climate for the existing footprint,” resulting in a predictable revenue stream for both the tribe and the parimutuel companies that operate horse and greyhound racing and jai alai. Also, Diaz said, the compact “definitely creates barriers to reckless expansion of gaming.” He noted if the compact were not renewed, Las Vegas-style gaming could come to Miami-Dade or Broward counties, which the Seminoles oppose. But federal Indian gaming law would allow the Seminoles to operate their games without revenue sharing with the state if gambling is expanded. “If you are not for the expansion of gaming then you don’t want a Las Vegas strip in Florida because three casinos become 10,” Diaz said.

The Seminoles previously said despite the October 31deadline they will continue operating the banked card games and send revenue sharing payments to the state. The Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation asked the tribe to provide a “timeline for the closure of banked card games at your tribal facilities.” But the claims it can continue to offer the banked games under the federal Indian Gaming Regulatory Act because the state allows electronic versions of blackjack at South Florida racinos in violation of the exclusivity provisions of the compact.

Diaz said the issues probably will not be resolved before the regular session in January. Meanwhile, the gaming industry has been generously making campaign contributions. In the last fundraising quarter, July through September, parimutuels gave the Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee $65,000 and Disney gave $100,000. State Senator Joe Negron’s political committee, Treasure Coast Alliance, received $60,000 and Diaz’s own political committee, Rebuild Florida, received $60,000 from gaming interests.