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Gaming talks to keep going

The Seminole Tribe and Crist get more time to reach a deal.

By STEVE BOUSQUET and STEVE HUETTEL, Times Staff Writers
Published August 21, 2007


TALLAHASSEE -- With the federal government looking over their shoulders, Gov. Charlie Crist and the Seminole Tribe of Florida are crafting a deal that would allow not just Las Vegas-style slot machines on reservations but also possibly table games such as blackjack, craps and roulette.

The Interior Department on June 22 gave Crist 60 days to reach an agreement that would allow the tribe to offer the same type of slots now permitted at four Broward County parimutuel sites. Otherwise, the federal government would impose an agreement, cutting Florida out of a share of the profits.

But Interior officials said Monday they're satisfied negotiations are progressing well enough that they'll let the two sides keep working at least until next month. That's a far cry from the prolonged and unsuccessful negotiations under Gov. Jeb Bush, a staunch opponent of gambling.

"It's very different now under the administration of Gov. Crist," said George Skibine, director of the Office of Indian Gaming.

Talks centered on whether the seven tribal gambling sites can offer other forms of gambling in addition to the upgraded slots and how much the state would receive, said Barry Richard, an attorney for the tribe.

"We don't have an agreement on enough yet to set it down in a written document," he said.

The Seminoles already have the less lucrative bingo-style slot machines in its casinos, and the tribe keeps all the money.

Crist has argued that since it is inevitable the tribe is legally entitled to the more lucrative Class III machines, the state should receive a cut of the action.

Crist's chief of staff, George LeMieux, has held numerous face-to-face talks with tribal leaders and lawyers. LeMieux's daily calendar for July also shows discussions with Senate President Ken Pruitt and Broward County officials, among others.

Any compact is likely to give the Seminoles a major new lucrative source of gambling revenue, while ensuring that a piece of the take reverts to the state.

How big a piece, nobody involved in negotiations is saying. The tribe now rakes in more than $1-billion a year, most from their Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casinos in Tampa and Hollywood.

Florida's cut could start at $50-million a year and grow to $500-million annually in a few years, said state Sen. Dennis Jones, R-Treasure Island, who chairs a Senate committee that oversees gambling issues.

Gaming experts say Las Vegas slots, faster and more popular than the bingo-style machines, would boost revenues somewhat. But table games would rocket the two Hard Rock casinos into the top tier of casino resorts, said Joe Weinert of Spectrum Gaming, a gambling consulting firm outside Atlantic City.

"Table games attract the true high-rollers," he said. "You'll get ... the real draw of big-money action you don't get with slot machines."

Officials with Florida race tracks and gambling ships, however, worry they won't be able to compete.

"Depending on what Crist does, it could be very hurtful," said Ralph Haben, a lobbyist representing owners of more than a dozen casino ships.

Jones suggests that dog tracks, horse tracks and jai-alai frontons could be given the option to offer the bingo-style Class II games.

It's possible that any agreement with the Seminoles could face resistance from key legislators who oppose what they view as any expansion of gambling in Florida. One unresolved question is whether a compact needs legislative approval.

House Speaker Marco Rubio, R-West Miami, has asked Attorney General Bill McCollum whether the state must sanction any type of gambling "currently prohibited by state law," such as table games.

Steve Huettel can be reached at huettel@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3384.