BY MARY ELLEN KLAS
Herald/Times Tallahassee Bureau
TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Charlie Crist and legislative leaders announced their $1 billion gambling compact with the Seminole Tribe on Tuesday, saying the long-sought agreement would inject needed cash into Florida’s budget and free the tribe to create jobs as it expands its gambling empire.
“This really bodes well for the future of Florida,” Crist said at a news conference, adding that he hoped lawmakers would use the estimated $435 million this year for education. “The compact will help improve the quality of life for all Floridians, and it could benefit the tribe and all our entire state.”
The agreement, finalized Friday, is expected to be approved by the tribal council Wednesday morning in Hollywood, signed by Crist later in the day, and ratified by the House and Senate as early as Thursday.
It is the third time in three years the parties have negotiated a plan to give the Seminoles exclusive operation of some casino games in exchange for a revenue-sharing plan that would benefit the state. A 2007 agreement between Crist and the tribe was invalidated by the Florida Supreme Court, and a second attempt negotiated in August was rejected by legislators.
Now, the timing is no accident. Legislators need the cash as they begin to fill a $3.2 billion budget hole and settle their differences over the House and Senate budget proposals.
The tribe also had an incentive to complete the compact. It will lose its most powerfully ally — the governor — after this year because Crist is running for the GOP nomination for U.S. Senate.
“It’s been a long journey,” said Mitchell Cypress, chairman of the Seminole Tribe. ‘‘The governor has been working with us since ‘07. I know they’ve attacked and thrown arrows at him but . . . I think everybody will benefit as well as the Seminole Tribe.”
Under the agreement, the state will give the tribe the exclusive operation of blackjack, baccarat and chemin de fer at five of its seven casinos and the exclusive operation of Class III, Las Vegas-style slot machines at its four casinos outside Miami-Dade and Broward counties.
In exchange, the tribe will guarantee the state $1 billion over five years, and up to 10 percent of its net revenue on its exclusive games for 15 years after that.
As legislators ratify the compact, they have also agreed to help the tribe’s competitors by:
n Lowering the tax rate for horse and dog tracks and jai-alai frontons in Miami-Dade and Broward to 35 percent from 50 percent.
n Allowing the 19 parimutuels outside Miami-Dade and Broward to install up to 350 bingo-style machines, vending machines that dispense lottery tickets and historic racing machines.
n Giving all parimutuels expanded gambling hours and higher betting limits.
“At the end of the day, what we have created is a good basis for moving forward and some real equity,” said Rep. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, the key legislative negotiator with the tribe.
“I think we reached the most fair agreement that could be reached,” Galvano told the Bradenton Herald after the news conference.
Gary Bitner, a spokesman for the tribe, said the Seminoles’ efforts to reach such an agreement spanned back to early 1990s.
“It’s been a long time, it’s an effort that’s been underway for 20 years, and to be this close is remarkable, and a testimony to a lot of people who worked very hard, especially Bill Galvano,” Bitner said.
The linchpin of the deal is the plan to authorize — for five years only — card games that currently are not legal in Florida: blackjack, baccarat and chemin de fer. The tribe will have exclusive operation of the table games at its three Broward casinos and its casinos in Immokalee and Tampa, but not at its Brighton casino in Okeechobee or its Big Cypress casino in Clewiston.
The tribe will guarantee the state $150 million per year in years one and two of the compact. The tribe will pay a minimum of $233 million in years three and four, and $234 million in year five, or, beginning in year three, pay 10 percent of its net revenue from the exclusive games — whichever is greater. Legislative staff members expect the payments to exceed the minimum amounts by an estimated $200 million over the five-year life of the table games.
By June, the state will have already collected $287 million from the now-defunct 2007 compact, so House and Senate negotiators say they can comfortably predict the state will net $1.5 billion over five years.
The five-year limit on table games gives the tribe the assurance that the Legislature won’t give the parimutuels the card games as the tribe expands the games and makes other investments in its gambling empire.
“When the tribe is committing this type of money, it’s important to know the scope of gaming,” said Jim Allen, CEO of the Seminole’s Hard Rock Casino in Hollywood, who proposed the five-year limit when talks resumed with legislators early this year.
After the tribe operates the card games for five years, the Legislature must either pass a law to allow them to continue or order the games to cease. Lawmakers could also expand casinos to other parts of Florida. In that case, the tribe would be allowed to reduce the amount of money it pays the state.
“I’m happy with it,” said Dan Adkins, president of Mardi Gras Casino and Gaming in Hollywood. “I view it as a way to start to deliver what we promised. We’ve had our hands tied with this tax rate.” He said his casino will use the tax break to expand and better promote its games.
Allen said the certainty of the compact would now allow the tribe to move forward with its multimillion-dollar expansion plans.
Galvano, Sen. Dennis Jones, R-Seminole, lawyers for the governor and representatives of the tribe finalized the agreement during negotiations on Friday.
“We resolved a festering issue that has been around for two decades, and turned it into a positive for the citizens of Florida,” Galvano said.
— Herald staff writer Sara Kennedy contributed to this report.