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Scott Inks $3.1 Billion Deal With Seminoles

The Seminole Tribe of Florida has agreed to pay $3.1 billion to the state over seven years in exchange for adding craps and roulette to its current casino operations, under an agreement announced Monday night by Gov. Rick Scott.

The deal is believed to be the largest tribal revenue-sharing agreement in the country, and is triple the current $1 billion the Seminoles have paid to the state over the past five years for the exclusive rights to operate "banked" card games, including blackjack.

The agreement regarding the card games ---- part of a larger, 20-year deal known as a "compact" --- expired this summer, sending the Scott and the tribe back to the negotiating table. The new deal requires legislative approval, and even before the ink was dry on the agreement, some legislators were questioning the possibility of its ultimate success.

Under the deal, the tribe would be allowed to have blackjack, craps and roulette at all of its existing seven facilities, but cannot expand its operations for 20 years, under the pact signed Monday by Scott and Seminole Chairman James Billie.

But the tribe is giving up its monopoly on blackjack and is ceding its stronghold on slots.

Under the agreement reached in 2010, slot machines anywhere but at the existing pari-mutuels in Broward and Miami-Dade counties or on other tribal lands would invalidate the compact and lose the state big bucks. Giving blackjack or other banked table games to the Broward and Miami-Dade racinos would reduce the tribe's payments to the state, and the racinos have not offered the games.

The new deal would allow the Miami-Dade and Broward racinos to add blackjack. And the agreement would allow up to 750 slot machines and 750 "instant racing" machines --- which appear like slots but operate differently --- to be phased in over three years at the Palm Beach Kennel Club and at a new facility in Miami.

"With a $3 billion guarantee along with a cap on the tribe's gaming, it is my hope that this compact can be the foundation of a stable and predictable gaming environment for the state of Florida," Scott said in letter Monday night to House Speaker Steve Crisafulli and Senate President Andy Gardiner, with the compact attached. The "cap" refers to a limit on the number of slot machines the tribe could have at its casinos.

Scott also acknowledged that there may be "several other issues that the Legislature may wish to debate and discuss in addition to the details within this compact itself."

But, he wrote, "The compact itself is a good deal for the state of Florida and it is my hope that you will consider giving it a vote in the Florida Senate and the Florida House during the regular 2016 session or at the time you believe is most appropriate."

But getting the Legislature's blessing could be problematic, especially given Scott's handling of the announcement.

In his letter to the legislative leaders, Scott said "this agreement would not have been possible without the leadership of Sen. Rob Bradley and Rep. Jose Felix Diaz in the state's negotiation."

But Diaz was unaware that the governor had signed the deal until contacted Monday evening by The News Service of Florida.

"There are a lot of things that I still need to communicate with House leadership. I'm hoping to be able to read the document in its totality to see what's in there," Diaz, R-Miami, said. "There are things that are probably going to have to change if we're going to pass something out of the House."

One of the sticking points for lawmakers involves which pari-mutuels outside Miami-Dade and Broward would get slots.

Voters in six counties --- Brevard, Gadsden Hamilton, Lee, Palm Beach and Washington --- have given a thumbs-up to slots at local pari-mutuels. The Florida Supreme Court recently decided to hear a dispute about whether Gretna Racing in Gadsden County should be allowed to have slot machines without the express permission of the Legislature, in a case with widespread implications for gambling throughout the state.

Black lawmakers in the House want Gretna to have slots. Gadsden, one of the poorest regions in Florida, is the only county with a majority of black residents.

Other lawmakers, and lobbyists, are pushing for Lee County, home of Naples Fort Myers Greyhound Racing and Poker in Bonita Springs.

Yet others are insisting that the deal allow the Melbourne Greyhound Park, in Brevard County, to be included. Crisafulli and House Rules Chairman Ritch Workman both hail from Brevard.

Limiting the slots to Palm Beach in the compact could make it difficult to pass a bill authorizing the deal, Diaz predicted.

"That could be subject to change. And it would lead to a different-looking compact," he said. "It would be fair to say that whatever the governor has announced could look different by the end of session."

Bradley, a Fleming Island Republican, called Scott's $3.1 billion agreement "a good deal for taxpayers."

"Those are dollars that we're going to be able to use for core services, education, transportation and health care," Bradley said.

The flexibility included in the compact gives lawmakers room to come up with an agreement that is palatable to members in both chambers as well as to the state's pari-mutuel industry, not an easy task.

"I think it's a recognition that as the legislation moves through the process, there are going to be lots of voices that are going to be heard in the Legislature," Bradley said. "So you want to provide some flexibility so that those voices could be incorporated meaningfully into the discussion, but not bust the fundamental framework of the agreement with the tribe."

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Dara Kam of The News Service of Florida
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