Seminole tribe files suit despite progress

Tribe in intense talks with Florida on new compact for gambling casinos

TALLAHASSEE -- After weeks of intense negotiations with Gov. Rick Scott and legislators, the Seminole Tribe of Florida broke its silence Monday and reported that "significant progress" is under way to renew its gaming compact with the state, but also said that it has filed a lawsuit in federal court to protect its right under federal Indian gaming law.

The Tribe, which owns the Hard Rock Casinos in Tampa and Hollywood, faces an Oct. 29 deadline to quit operating table games -- blackjack and baccarat -- at five of its seven casinos because a key provision of the 2010 compact that allows the tribe to do so in exchange for payments to the state, expired at the end of July.

The agreement remains in force until the end of the month but both the compact, and the federal Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, give the Tribe the right to seek court intervention.

"The Tribe believes that a legislative solution would be in the best interest of the State and the Tribe," the tribe said in a statement, but added that the lawsuit was necessary "in order to protect its interests and those of the 3,100 employees and their families whose jobs are in jeopardy.

Officials from the Tribe met with the governor two weeks ago and returned to Tallahassee last week to continue talks with his staff and key legislators.

The Tribe has remained silent about the negotiations but sounded optimistic in its statement on Monday.

"Seminole Tribe of Florida Chairman James E. Billie is pleased to report significant progress in the Tribe's negotiations with the Governor and leaders of the Florida Legislature relative to finalizing a new Compact agreement, and the Tribe remains hopeful that a positive outcome will result," the statement said.

The governor's office declined comment Monday.

Months of negotiating

Legislators spent this summer and fall negotiating whether to renew, amend or expand the compact, which must be signed by the governor and approved by the legislature. According to Rep. Jose Felix Diaz, the lead negotiator for the House, they have discussed increasing the revenue to the state by guaranteeing a yearly payment of $200 million to $400 million, based on revenues, over time frames that range from seven to 20 years, and numerous other options, but they have approved no details, he said.

Diaz, a Miami Republican who chairs the House Regulated Affairs Committee, told the Times/Herald the matter is complicated because legislators are divided over most of the issues and any final agreement must appease those who want to protect their local parimutuels, tamp down gaming expansion or use the compact to generate more state revenue.

The Tribe has previously said it will ignore the October deadline and not only continue operating the games but also continue sending revenue-sharing payments to the state.

Since the first compact was signed with the state in 2010, the Tribe has shared more than $1 billion in revenue in exchange for exclusive operation of its card games and slot machines at its five casinos outside of South Florida.

In June, the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation said it disagreed with the Seminoles' claims and asked the Tribe to provide them with a "timeline for the closure of banked card games at your tribal facilities." But the Tribe has failed to do so, arguing that regulators are violating the deal by allowing the competing games.

The Tribe argues that it is entitled to continue operating the banked games under the federal Indian Gaming Regulatory Act because the state allows electronic versions of blackjack at racinos in South Florida in violation of the exclusivity provisions of the compact.