State Politics

House sets table for gambling legislation

Bill would take away card games but leave slots for Seminoles

By SARA KENNEDY

skennedy@bradenton.com

MANATEE — A Florida House committee signed off on a bill that would direct Gov. Charlie Crist to negotiate a new agreement that would strip Seminole Tribe casinos of card games like blackjack and baccarat, but would allow continued operation of slot machines.

“I think it’s a great committee bill, and helps us move forward in the process,” said Rep. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, chairman of the House Select Committee on Seminole Indian Compact Review, after the 19-1 vote Friday in Tallahassee.

The committee is reviewing an agreement between the state and the Seminole Tribe of Florida, owner of seven casinos.

If the measure became law, it would guarantee a minimum of $100 million annually for the state, or 18 percent of gambling revenues, whichever is greater, said Galvano. The compact’s term would be reduced from 25 to 10 years.

An agreement with the Seminoles is important because the recession has dried up sources of money the state ordinarily draws upon to finance the state budget, estimated at $65 billion this year.

The proposal would allow the tribe to operate slot machines at its casinos, one of which is the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Tampa, 40 miles north of Manatee County.

Although Broward and Miami-Dade counties already permit slot machines, the House version of the compact would keep them off limits in other parts of the state, except for properties owned by the tribe.

The measure would require the tribe to halt card games such as blackjack and baccarat within 90 days of the compact’s effective date.

“We are encouraged the House is continuing to look at the issue. We look forward to working with both legislative bodies to reach a resolution beneficial to all involved,” said James Allen, chairman of Hard Rock International and chief executive officer of Seminole Gaming, who oversees day-to-day operation of the tribe’s casinos.

Allen said he attended a rally Friday in Tallahassee with educators and the governor, who supports the terms of the 2007 compact and wants legislators to ratify the original, 25-year pact.

The courts voided it on grounds that Crist had exceeded his authority, and ruled it needed legislative approval to be valid.

“The compact represents $288 million for education this year alone, and those dollars are just the beginning of billions of dollars that will come to Florida’s schools during the next 25 years,” Crist said. “These much-needed funds will improve the quality of life of students, teachers, and all Floridians for generations to come.”

Also supporting the governor’s position Friday was Wayne Blanton, executive director for the Florida School Boards Association, and William J. “Bill” Montford III, chief executive officer for the Florida Association of District School Superintendents, according to a spokesman for the governor’s office.

The House committee Monday is slated to review measures that might ensure that the state’s 27 pari-mutuel businesses, such as the Sarasota Kennel Club, are able to compete under the terms of an agreement with the Seminoles, Galvano said.

Kennel club owner Jack Collins Jr. has said his business might close if the state agrees to an arrangement that puts him at a competitive disadvantage.

House members supported a more conservative proposal than one under consideration in the Senate, which would greatly expand what Crist envisioned in 2007.

The Senate would allow gaming at both tribal casinos and parimutuel businesses. Its version is estimated to raise $400 million next year for the state.

“The Senate wants full-on casinos,” said Galvano. “In addition to what was in the original compact, they want to add roulette and craps and card games to nontribal entities, video lotteries all over the state.”

Sara Kennedy, Herald reporter, can be reached at (941) 708-7908 or at skennedy@bradenton.com

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