Feds set Nov. 15 deadline on gambling in Seminole Indian casinos

Tallahassee – The federal government told Gov. Charlie Crist that it will take steps to allow expanded gambling in Seminole Indian casinos if he doesn’t reach an agreement with the tribe by Nov. 15.

In a letter sent to Crist’s office Monday, the U.S. Interior Department’s assistant secretary of Indian Affairs told Crist that the tribe is at a disadvantage because Las Vegas style slots — or Class III machines — are allowed at some dog and horse tracks and jai alai frontons, but not in Indian casinos.

„The Department has a responsibility to the Tribe,“ wrote Carl Artman, who referred to the 2004 constitutional amendment that allowed slots at Broward County pari-mutuels. „This leaves the Tribe on an unfair playing field if it is allowed only Class II games.“

If a tribal-state compact is not signed by the deadline, „Please be advised that the Department will issue Class III gaming procedures,“ Artman wrote.

That means at the very least, Vegas-style slots could be brought in to replace the „Class II“ bingo-based video slots the tribe already has at casinos like the Hard Rock in Tampa and Hollywood.

Crist, reached while on a trade mission to Brazil, was concerned Florida would see no benefit if the federal government acted without a compact agreement in place.

„I understand they’re sort of forcing the issue and the issue is they’re going to make us do it one way or another,“ Crist said. „I want to make sure we’re protecting (taxpayers‘) interests first, Florida’s interests first … We’ll do the right thing.“

The major points of an agreement have been worked out, said Barry Richard, a lawyer representing the tribe. The tribe has been negotiating with Crist since he took office in January after little progress was made during talks with former Gov. Jeb Bush. Both sides say they are close to a deal that could bring the state more than USD 100 million a year.

In return, the tribe would get games like blackjack and baccarat which aren’t allowed elsewhere in Florida. It is also seeking a guarantee that the state won’t allow competing games within a certain geographic region around the casinos.

„Neither the tribe nor the state prefers to have procedures from the Department of the Interior,“ said Richard. „Under the procedures, the state gets no revenue, under the compact, the state gets a great deal of revenue.“

While Richard said he expects a compact to be signed, he said he was happy the letter was issued because it provides a fallback for the tribe.

Some Republican lawmakers, including House Speaker Marco Rubio, are opposed to a compact with the tribe that would allow any gambling beyond slot machines.

Miami-Dade County voters will decide in January whether to allow slots at tracks and the jai alai fronton there. County voters rejected slots during a 2005 election.