Seminoles up the ante in bid for expanded gambling rights

The Seminole Tribe of Florida has offered the state USD 50 million up front and at least USD 100 million a year in exchange for the right to have Las Vegas-style slot machines, blackjack and baccarat, the tribes‘ attorneys said Friday.

Under the proposal, the state would receive a percentage of the seven tribal casinos‘ revenue with the Seminoles guaranteeing a minimum annual payment of USD 100 million. The tribe, though, projects the state would receive considerably more than USD 100 million, said Barry Richard, an attorney for the Seminoles.

Gov. Charlie Crist’s office and the tribe have spent the past four months negotiating an agreement over the Seminoles‘ gambling rights, which is commonly known as a compact. The U.S. Department of Interior has warned Crist that if the state can’t reach an agreement with the tribe, the federal government could step in and allow the tribe to have traditional slot machines anyway. If that happened, the state would receive no cut of the gambling revenue or have any regulatory oversight.

George LeMieux, Crist’s chief of staff, declined Friday to reveal the dollar amounts discussed, saying he didn’t want to compromise negotiations in any way. He said he hopes to have an agreement in place within the next two weeks.

Crist has indicated that once he has negotiated a deal with the Seminoles, he will ask the Legislature to ratify it. When it would go before the Legislature is unclear, but the slumping economy has the state looking for an infusion of money. Lawmakers are trying to figure out a way to slice USD 1.1 billion away from the state’s USD 71 billion budget.

In response to public records requests from several media outlets including the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, Crist’s office on Friday released drafts of compact agreements that have been prepared by the Seminole Tribe during different points of the negotiations. The drafts were the product of the negotiation talks, but none of the points has been finalized, said the tribe’s attorneys and LeMieux. The documents did not include any dollar amounts.

Each of the drafts indicates the tribe is willing to enter into a compact without receiving roulette or craps. Richard said Crist has indicated he’s willing to allow expanded card games — blackjack and baccarat — but is against craps and roulette.

LeMieux declined to comment on whether Crist opposed those forms of gambling. Crist is not excited about expanding gambling, but understands that if he doesn’t, the federal government will and the state won’t receive any money, LeMieux said.

The draft documents indicate that 95 percent of the state’s cut would go to education, while the other 5 percent would go to the cities and counties near the casinos. Three of the tribe’s seven casinos are in Broward County.

The addition of Las Vegas-style slot machines and some table games would make the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino near Hollywood more of a destination resort and could fuel expansion at the Seminole Casino Coconut Creek. The tribe has averaged an annual profit of more than USD 500 million from its gambling operations statewide since opening its Hard Rock complexes near Hollywood and Tampa, according to court records.

The draft documents indicate the Seminole Tribe also wants the compact to include provisions that call for reducing payments to the state if gambling is expanded outside tribal lands.

The Seminoles have wanted a compact for years, but negotiations took on a new sense of urgency in 2005 once voters approved traditional slot machines at Broward’s four pari-mutuels.

The tribe has argued that it is entitled under Florida law to the same forms of gambling allowed by the state. The Seminole Tribe’s casinos currently feature bingo-style slot machines, where players compete against each other. Those machines are considered less desirable than traditional slots, which are individually programmed for payouts.

Even though three Broward pari-mutuels now have the Las Vegas-style slots, gambling analysts say the tribe continues to dominate the South Florida gambling market.