State Politics

Gambling pact moves closer to final approval

TALLAHASSEE — The state’s $1 billion gambling deal with the Seminole Tribe easily scaled its first legislative hurdle Thursday as lawmakers disregarded warnings from Christian groups and rival horse and dog tracks that the measure would be bad for the state.

The House Select Committee on Seminole Indian Compact Review voted 15-3 to ratify the gambling compact, which was unanimously approved by the tribe’s council Wednesday and signed by Gov. Charlie Crist.

The measure will give the tribe the exclusive right to operate three cards games — black jack, chemin de fer and baccarat — at its five casinos in Broward, Tampa and Immokalee for five years and the right to operate Class III slot machines at all seven of its casinos for 20 years.

In return, the tribe agrees to pay the state a minimum of $1 billion over five years, including $435 million the state will have in the bank by the end of June, money collected from tribal payments on a now-defunct 2007 compact with the governor. After the initial five years, the tribe will keep paying an amount determined by the profits from its games.

Rep. Bill Galvano, the Bradenton Republican who chairs the committee, hailed the agreement as a reasonable resolution to a 19-year standoff festering between the state and the tribe since the Seminoles first sought Class III casino games, arguing that the tribe was entitled to the games since the state had authorized the lottery.

“At the end of the day, what we did was take a statesmanlike approach to a controversy that was not of our creation,” Galvano said. He said the compact “does not allow further expansion of gaming” but admitted that it also does not require the tribe to halt the table games it has been operating illegally at its casinos since January 2008.

But opponents said the state should have rejected the slots and table games and limited gambling.

Conservative Christian groups warned that the agreement would spawn more addicted gamblers, destroy families, increase crime and prompt more demands from parimutuels for new games to better compete with the tribe.

“Stop it if you can,” said Bill Bunkley, of the Florida Baptist Convention.

Ken Plante, lobbyist for Tampa Bay Downs horse track, called it “the biggest expansion of gambling in this state without a vote of the people.”

Plante predicted that unless the Legislature comes back with additional protections for horse and dog tracks and jai alai frontons, the gambling agreement “will probably put parimutuels out of business in this state.”

The proposal attempts to soften the impact on parimutuels by lowering the tax rate for horse and dog-tracks and jai-alai frontons in Miami-Dade and Broward from 50 percent to 35 percent, as long as they guarantee tax revenues to the state won’t drop.

Included in the mix will be Hialeah Park, which will be allowed to continue quarter horse racing — and eventually switch to thoroughbred racing — as it installs slot machines and poker rooms.

Under the agreement, tracks and frontons outside of Miami-Dade and Broward will also get expanded hours and higher betting limits for the card rooms and, if future legislatures agree, add 350 bingo-style machines and historic racing machines to each facility.