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Governor may have overplayed his hand
A Times Editorial
Published November 18, 2007
Given the open hostility in the Legislature toward Indian gaming, Gov. Charlie Crist had reason to want to avoid a showdown that could leave Florida empty handed. But the compact he has now signed with the Seminole Tribe allows for games that are otherwise illegal, and the governor cannot make law. While there are differing legal opinions, it seems this agreement could require the approval of the Legislature.
While we continue to oppose the expansion of gambling, the deal itself has some merit. Crist tried to avoid the mistake made by the late Gov. Lawton Chiles, who refused to negotiate only to see the Seminoles build casinos without state oversight or revenue sharing. So he agreed to let the Tribe upgrade to high-stakes slot machines, which are now allowed in parimutuel facilities in Broward and Miami-Dade after local voters approve. Crist also granted some exclusivity for payments to the state that would begin at a modest $100-million the first year but are tied to gaming revenues and could rise toward $500-million in the future. Equally important, the compact provides a strong disincentive for any future expansion of gambling: The tribe no longer would be required to share its revenues with the state if gambling beyond the scope of this agreement is permitted.
The problem is that the governor may have exceeded his authority in approving the agreement with the Legislature's consent. State law, written in the wake of a narrowly approved 2004 constitutional amendment, allows only for high-stakes slots. All other forms of so-called Class III casino gambling, including the blackjack and baccarat games Crist approved exclusively for the seven Seminole Indian facilities, are forbidden.
The governor's chief of staff says that federal law governing the sovereign Indian lands requires only that the U.S. Interior secretary and governor approve gaming compacts. But that's misleading at best. The Indian Gaming Regulatory Act provision for tribal compacts refers only to the approval of the "state" and never uses the word "governor." In other words, the state gets to decide who issues final approval and nothing in current law or the Florida Constitution appears to specifically grant Crist such authority.
The governor walked an admittedly fine line as he sought to limit Indian gaming without losing the opportunity for the state to regulate and profit from it. As he tried to bargain in good faith, he also faced public attacks from legislators who promised to fight any agreement. Parimutuel operators who had persuaded voters to let them have high-stakes slot machines in Broward were livid at the prospect of what they viewed as unfair competition.
In the end, Crist dropped his "preference" to work with the Legislature. He may have negotiated an agreement with the Seminoles that could result in neither a dramatic expansion in gambling nor extraordinary profit for the state. But he most certainly threw the issue into the courts by acting alone.