State gambling expansion still hinges on tribe

HIALEAH — Fresh from signing the Legislature’s wide-ranging gambling expansion bill, Gov. Charlie Crist paid a visit Monday to one of that bill’s biggest beneficiaries — historic Hialeah Park.

Under the bill signed by Crist, Hialeah Park — which hasn’t hosted a horse race since 2001 — will be allowed to offer live races again, while also opening a poker room.

After two years of racing, Hialeah can install lucrative Las Vegas-style slot machines — a remarkable turnaround for a National Historic Landmark that until recently was at serious risk of being torn down, despite its majestic beauty.

But Hialeah’s comeback is not completely assured. Legislative language outlining the track’s right to reopen as a slots casino is tucked into a larger bill that lays out the guidelines for a new gambling agreement between the Seminole Tribe and the state.

The tribe has yet to sign off on that agreement, and there have been rumblings that the Seminoles are unhappy with some portions of the Legislature’s bill — portions that could increase the tribe’s operational costs and competition.

State Rep. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, who chaired the state House of Representatives’ committee that oversaw new gaming legislation, pledged legislators would “move swiftly to ratify the compact, once finalized with the tribe.”

Galvano said Crist has until Aug. 31 to finalize the terms of the deal, adding, “I would recommend as soon as the deal is complete, we go back to Tallahassee and ratify.”

The Legislature’s version of the agreement would allow the tribe to offer blackjack and other table games at its two Hard Rock resorts in Hollywood and Tampa, plus two other casinos in Broward. Three Seminole casinos elsewhere in the state could offer slots, but no table games.

In return, the tribe would pay the state at least w$150 million a year, including $300 million the first year.

Crist is expected to immediately begin negotiations with the tribe, despite initial claims by Seminole attorney Barry Richard that the deal was a non-starter because it would require the tribe to continue payments to the state even if the Legislature or voters approved similar games for tracks outside South Florida.

Crist said Monday he was “optimistic” about reaching a deal by the deadline. The tribe declined comment on the issue. If Crist and the tribe come to terms, the compact agreement would return to the Legislature for a final vote.

But if Crist and the tribe can’t reach a deal, Hialeah Park’s reopening could be torpedoed. Hialeah would still have its horse-racing permit, but not the right to install slots. Slots revenue will be key in financing the extensive improvements the race track needs. Owner John Brunetti has pledged a $100 million makeover for Hialeah Park.

“Obviously in any type of business venture, you want to have all of the loose ends tied in,” Hialeah Mayor Julio Robaina said. “And that’s one of the loose ends that needs to be tied in.”

Besides Hialeah, other parimutuel facilities across the state also have a lot at stake in the governor’s negotiations with the tribe.

All parimutuels, whether they have slots or not, are allowed to add higher-stakes poker games under the Legislature’s bill. But in order for the parimutuel tax break and higher poker limits to take effect, the Seminoles and the state must ink a deal.