The Florida Legislature should not be fooled by Gov. Rick Scott's $3 billion gambling deal with the Seminole Tribe. It would bring a lot of new money to the state over the next several years, and it could help the governor sell his $1 billion proposed tax cut for next year.
But this agreement significantly benefits the Seminoles, expands gambling in the state rather than restricts it and offers a path for new casinos to be built in South Florida. It looks like a bad bet for Florida, and lawmakers should not be blinded by the big dollar signs.
The 20-year deal announced by Scott late Monday goes beyond a portion of the compact that expired in July. The expired provisions gave the Seminole Tribe the exclusive use of banked card games such as blackjack at five of its casinos in exchange for paying the state at least $100 million a year. The payments to the state for the card games and slot machines added up to $1 billion over the last five years.
The new agreement calls for the tribe to pay the state $3 billion over seven years for the current games and slots that could be at all seven of its existing facilities -- and the right to add craps and roulette. How is that not an expansion of gambling? At least those changes are confined to the Seminoles' facilities. But as part of the deal, the Seminoles would give up their monopoly on blackjack statewide and on slot machines outside existing parimutuels in Broward and Miami-Dade counties while still making payments to the state.
Those Broward and Miami-Dade parimutuels could add blackjack tables with voter approval, and voters also could be asked to authorize up to 750 slot machines and 750 similar machines that could be installed at the Palm Beach Kennel Club and at a new facility in Miami. How is that not an expansion of gambling?
Then there is the reopened possibility of full casino resorts. The Malaysian company Genting has said it wants to build a full casino resort on the site of the now-razed Miami Herald building along Biscayne Bay.
The new agreement with the Seminoles says if Miami-Dade voters approve a gambling referendum Genting or others could apply to the state for a license for slot machines. Scott denied Tuesday that the agreement opens the door to casinos run by anyone besides the Seminoles, but it certainly offers a map to the door.
How is that not an expansion of gambling? Don't think for a minute this deal with the Seminoles is only about expanded gambling in Broward and Miami-Dade counties.
The Seminoles' Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in Tampa would be expanded and add craps and roulette. Voters in six counties already have approved allowing slots at local parimutuels: Brevard, Gadsden, Hamilton, Lee, Palm Beach and Washington. You can bet the Derby Lane greyhound track in St. Petersburg and Tampa Bay Downs horse track in Tampa will want to add slot machines to stay competitive.
Scott argues that his agreement with the Seminoles limits gambling and creates certainty going forward. To his credit, he has bargained for more money from the tribe and locked them into a clear path for 20 years.
There also is an interesting provision that discourages the Legislature from explicitly legalizing fantasy sports leagues by calling for the Seminoles' guaranteed payments to end if the state "authorizes Internet gaming."
But this deal does not limit the expansion of gambling inside or outside the tribe's facilities. Limiting the number of slot machines at any of the Seminoles' facilities to 6,000 is hardly a restraint, particularly when many of the larger Las Vegas casinos have significantly fewer machines.
In the best light, the governor's agreement with the Seminoles provides lawmakers with some idea of the money on the table. But this debate is about more than winning a few billion dollars for a state strapped for cash as the governor and Republican lawmakers continue to push for tax cuts.
The Legislature should consider it an opening bid rather than a final deal that has to be voted up or down. There are too many loose ends and too many ways to significantly expand gambling in ways that would send the wrong signal about Florida's values and ambitions.