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Gaming talks with Seminoles likely stuck until November vote

As this year’s legislative session wound to a close, representatives of Gov. Rick Scott and the Seminole Tribe of Florida just couldn’t see eye-to-eye on a new gambling-revenue sharing agreement.

They were getting nowhere close to a deal, according to the tribe’s outside attorney in Tallahassee, so they left the table. And they haven’t been back since lawmakers left town in May.

“I don’t think anybody thumbed their noses at anybody else, but I know it was unsuccessful,” said Barry Richard, the attorney and a shareholder at the Greenberg Traurig law firm.

At the time, lawmakers cited the lack of a renegotiated revenue-share as the main reason they scuttled consideration of overhaul legislation, including a clean-up of laws regulating gambling.

You can’t do one without the other, they said. It turned out to be a self-fulfilling prophecy.

As legislators waited for an announcement that never came, Scott’s people and tribal representatives — as happens in business deals — couldn’t agree on a number.

The tribe offers gambling in several parts of the state, including at Tampa’s Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino.

Big money hangs in the balance: The current deal guaranteed the state’s treasury $1 billion over five years from the tribe’s gambling revenue.

It’s still not clear whether Scott — whom legislative leaders have called “a great negotiator” — was at all involved in those early discussions.

The Governor’s Office has declined to answer questions about the Seminoles, including those submitted last week, other than repeating the assurance that the governor “will take the time needed to get the best deal for Floridians.”

For example, since news first broke of the talks, the tribe and Scott’s staff haven’t said who took part in the meetings, how many they had or what was discussed.

Richard has admitted he wasn’t in the room, but added if the negotiators had been close to a deal, “I would have known about it.”

“I think they just reached the point where, when it didn’t happen, it didn’t happen and they just stopped,” he said. “The governor went on to run his campaign and the tribe moved on to run their businesses.”

Everyone agreed to return to the negotiating table “after we know who the players are,” Richard said.

In other words, a new agreed-upon cut to the state won’t emerge till after the November election.

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In 2010, the state and tribe agreed to a compact funneling a cut of gambling money to the state in return for exclusive rights to offer blackjack and other card games. The card-game provision expires in mid-2015.

All along, Richard has said not to bet that the state will squeeze any more money out of the arrangement.

Federal Indian gambling regulators have to approve any new deal, and the amount a tribe pays has to be a fair value for the exclusivity it’s getting, he explained.

That means that, ultimately, the federal government will reject a deal if it thinks a tribe is paying more than it can afford.

Earlier this year, the Legislature spent nearly $400,000 on a 700-page study of gambling in Florida. Sen. Garrett Richter, R-Naples, then led a series of public workshops around the state.

His Senate Gaming Committee produced a more-than-450-page rewrite of gambling-related statutes. Another measure would have created an independent state commission to regulate gambling.

Those bills were left largely unconsidered by session’s end.

Meantime, not having an agreement is a good reason not to talk about gambling in the state, experts say.

Even with a deal, “there’s not much the governor would gain from having negotiated a compact,” said Lance DeHaven-Smith, a political science professor at Florida State University. “You’ve got some interest in Tampa with the Hard Rock, but it’s not like people in Florida are holding their breath on this.”

On one hand, gambling creates jobs and is a popular recreation among many adults, he said. On the other, news of an agreement with the tribe could alienate voters who dislike gambling altogether.

“It kind of cuts both ways, but politically it has the potential to create some fallout if the governor starts talking about it,” DeHaven-Smith said. “You don’t want to mobilize concern by drawing attention to something that could be a negative for the incumbent.”

In late March, the Poarch Band of Creek Indians, an Alabama tribe that has land in trust in the Pensacola area, also asked Scott for its own compact to offer Las Vegas-style play in northwest Florida.

Poarch representatives couldn’t be reached for comment.

“There’s only one ‘issue’ right now: Winning re-election,” said Darryl Paulson, a retired professor of government at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg.

Scott isn’t likely to negotiate a deal that pleases everyone, he said.

“So, in many respects, he’s probably better off just going ahead with his single focus on jobs and the economy and hoping that’s the key to re-election,” Paulson said.

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