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Gambling chairman tells Senate no reform this year

TALLAHASSEE — A statewide gambling overhaul moved from life support to dead on arrival in the Legislature, judging by remarks Thursday by the chairman of the Senate’s gambling committee.

“Recently, it has become very apparent that unless the governor negotiates a new compact with the Seminole Tribe, there won’t be any comprehensive reform legislation this year,” the chairman, Naples Republican Garrett Richter, said on the floor of the Senate.

The Seminole Compact is a gambling revenue-sharing deal between the Seminole Tribe and the state that must be renegotiated by next year.

Any legislative fixes affecting gambling would have to take into account the many millions the state gets from the Seminoles’ gambling profits, Richter said.

“If we put the gaming reform cart in front of the Seminole Compact horse, we run the risk of getting policies at cross-purposes,” he said.

Richter’s comments followed an interview he gave to Tribune/Scripps on Wednesday night, in which he described gambling legislation as being on “life support.”

House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, has said passage of any major gambling-related legislation in his chamber this year requires completion of a renegotiated compact first.

The compact guarantees income to the state – $1 billion over five years – from the tribe’s gambling revenue in return for the tribe’s ability to exclusively offer blackjack and other card games at locations including Tampa’s Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino.

The card-game provision expires in mid-2015.

Richter said he’d been in contact with people from the governor’s office and from the tribe.

“I think we can reasonably expect an agreement soon that would significantly alter revenue sharing and exclusivity provisions,” he said.

Meantime, “the wiser course is to be patient,” he added. Richter didn’t define what “soon” meant.

Scott’s spokesman declined to answer specific questions about the negotiation process.

“With the gaming compact set to expire in 2015, we will take the time needed to get the best deal for Floridians,” Frank Collins said in an email.

Gary Bitner, the Seminole Tribe’s spokesman, also declined comment Thursday.

No matter when Scott strikes a deal, it will have to be vetted by the U.S. Department of the Interior, which oversees Indian gambling. That could take months.

Indian gambling is governed by the federal Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, a 1988 law.

Barry Richard, the tribe’s outside counsel in Tallahassee, 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 federal Indian gambling regulators will reject a deal if they think a tribe is paying more than it can afford.

Aside from the compact, another catch is the gulf between the two sides of the Capitol.

The House’s proposal eliminates close to a dozen inactive pari-mutuel permits and creates a statewide gambling oversight body, but doesn’t allow for destination resort casinos.

The Senate’s version would authorize two destination casinos in South Florida, create a gaming commission and allow local voters to decide on expanding gambling.

Weatherford, however, wants a constitutional amendment requiring a statewide vote before more gambling is allowed.

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