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Seminole contract looms over future of Florida gambling

TALLAHASSEE — As lawmakers decide whether to address expanded gambling in the state, another issue looms: The expiration of the agreement to let the Seminole Tribe of Florida offer card games.

That document, known as the Seminole Compact, includes a provision allowing the tribe to offer blackjack and other card games, at locations including its Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Tampa.

The card game provision expires in mid-2015 “unless renewed by affirmative act of the Florida Legislature,” according to the 54-page agreement, signed in April 2010.

But the tribe and lawmakers may not get an early start on any renewal negotiations because of the current review of the state’s gambling policy and laws.

The state may open up to more gambling, including Las Vegas-style destination casino-resorts, with a bill likely to be hashed out in the 2014 legislative session starting in March.

The deal with the Seminoles guarantees the state a minimum $1 billion from the tribe’s gambling income over five years. The 2013-14 payment is around $233 million, with $226 million going to the state and $7 million to local governments.

But the deal also gives the tribe exclusive rights to offer Las Vegas-style gambling outside Miami-Dade and Broward counties. If the tribe loses that exclusivity through an expanded gambling bill, the Seminoles can stop paying.

Those who would be involved in the negotiations kept their cards close to the vest last week.

Gov. Rick Scott’s office released a one-sentence statement.

“With the gaming compact set to expire in 2015, we will take the time needed to negotiate the best arrangement for Florida,” said Melissa Sellers, Scott’s communication director.

Ryan Duffy, spokesman for House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, referred questions to Rep. Rob Schenck, R-Spring Hill, who chairs the House select committee on gaming. He was traveling and couldn’t be reached.

Katie Betta, spokeswoman for Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, said that chamber’s gaming committee “is studying the Seminole Compact as part of their comprehensive review of current gaming in Florida.”

The expiration of the card-game provision was one reason Gaetz formed a special panel to deal with gambling and “develop a comprehensive, statewide policy,” she said.

Seminole spokesman Gary Bitner said the tribe would not comment on any future talks.

In October, however, Bitner told The Tampa Tribune that the Seminoles had “worked for two decades to secure a gaming compact with the state of Florida that provided a more stable future for the tribe … and allowed for significant sharing of gaming revenue with the state.

“The tribe wants to maintain that steady, stable course through 2015 and beyond,” he added.

Sen. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, worked on the compact when he served in the House.

“Figuring out what to do regarding the Seminoles and the end of the compact is pivotal to figuring out what to do about gaming overall in Florida,” Galvano said. “And the reduction in revenues to the state, depending on what we do, will be significant.”

One lawmaker last week raised the Seminole Compact in opposing a gambling operator’s bid to set up a slot-machine casino in Miami.

Genting Resorts World wants to lease Gulfstream Racetrack’s slot-machine license and open for business in the former Miami Herald building that Genting now owns. The property overlooks Biscayne Bay.

In 2012, a bill died in the Legislature that would have permitted the construction of three destination hotel-casinos in South Florida. Genting was hoping to open one of them in the Herald building.

Sen. Gwen Margolis, D-Miami, wrote to Gaetz on Thursday, asking him to join her in opposing the Genting-Gulfstream plan.

If the deal goes through, “gambling activity would be allowed in an area never contemplated by the voting public … at the center of an arts district, with two performing arts centers, two museums and the American Airlines Arena, all within two city blocks,” she wrote. “It might also adversely impact our revenues from the compact with the Seminole Tribe of Florida.”

As of Friday afternoon, Gaetz had not replied publicly to the letter.

An outside study done for legislators has said “the introduction of casinos, whether standalone destination resorts, or addition of slot machines at existing parimutuels, will lead to modest economic benefits.”

Margolis previously suggested that the state allow the Seminoles to offer roulette and craps, now prohibited.

“We would probably, without opening one new casino, have much more money,” she said at an October committee hearing.

In response, Bitner then said the tribe “is not negotiating for additional games, and is happy with the games it has now.”

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