State Politics

Gaming center of attention at upcoming legislative session

TALLAHASSEE — The Seminole Tribe of Florida will be at the center of the debate when lawmakers return to the issue of gambling this year.

Though little has changed for the tribe in the past year — it still runs blackjack and other casino games without a valid state gambling agreement — its influence is being felt in all corners of the state.

Other players in the gambling scene, spurred by the prospect of the state giving the tribe a monopoly outside of South Florida, are pushing to add more games and more gambling options in Florida.

n One of the largest casino operators in Las Vegas, Sheldon Adelson of Las Vegas Sands, has hired a lobbyist to explore the prospect of resort-style casinos in Florida.

n The Florida House, with a history of opposing the expansion of gambling, is pushing legislation to lower the tax rate on slot machines at parimutuels.

n The operators of international online poker sites are asking legislators to pass a law to allow online poker games within the state.

n And perhaps the biggest change of all: the federal government, after nearly three years of taking a hands-off approach to Florida’s gambling scene, has indicated it will decide whether to shut down or sanction the Seminole Tribe’s table games, which were ruled illegal in Florida by a 2008 Florida Supreme Court decision.

“There is a heightened level of involvement and diligence occurring on the part of federal government,” said Rep. Bill Galvano, the Bradenton Republican who has headed legislative attempts to craft a gambling compact with the tribe.

Under federal law, the tribe is supposed to have a gambling agreement — or compact — with the state in order to operate its table games. Even though talks have broken down, the tribe continues to send the state $12 million a month, the amount it would owe the state if its gambling compact were in effect. And the tribe’s competitors have continued trying to undercut a potential Seminole monopoly of casino games in Florida.

Gov. Charlie Crist and the Seminoles signed a second gambling compact last year but failed to include many limitations demanded by lawmakers, and a House committee rejected it last month.

The National Indian Gaming Commission — which regulates tribal casinos — made it clear in October that it could take action against the tribe for running games invalidated by the Supreme Court decision.

Officials for the NIGC inspected the machines at Mardi Gras — a sign, Galvano said, that the agency is taking a more aggressive approach to Florida’s situation. The federal agency is still evaluating what to do, an NIGC spokesman said.

Galvano said he hopes the federal agency will halt the tribe’s table games and increase the incentive for the tribe to make concessions to the state.

“Until then, it’s like negotiating over your phone while you still get to use your phone,” he said.

The tribe returned to informal negotiations with Galvano and the Legislature’s lawyers in late February. Galvano and House Speaker Larry Cretul credit the federal government’s involvement.

“The fact that the feds are asking them to justify a position is light years away from where we were just a year ago,” Galvano said.

Galvano hopes the increased competition combined with new interest by the federal government will make the tribe amenable to a plan that does less harm to Florida’s parimutuel industry, he said.

Crist, a strong advocate for the tribe during compact negotiations, is confident a resolution will be found soon. Crist’s proposed budget counts on $225 million the tribe has already paid the state.