Rubio fights gaming pact

The House speaker asks the state high court to bar deal with the Seminoles.

By ALEX LEARY and STEVE BOUSQUET, Times Staff Writers
Published November 20, 2007

TALLAHASSEE - The political stakes over casino gambling in Florida intensified Monday as House Speaker Marco Rubio asked the state's highest court to invalidate a deal Gov. Charlie Crist negotiated with the Seminole tribe.

"This case is about protecting our system of checks and balances," Rubio said.

In response, Crist's top aide, George LeMieux, accused Rubio of a lack of leadership and of playing politics on the issue - suggesting that the rift over Las Vegas-style gambling could strain relations between the governor and the Legislature.

Rubio's petition to the Florida Supreme Court argues that Crist's deal encroached on the Legislature's law and policymaking authority, violating the separation of powers.

The petition says that five other states - New York, Rhode Island, New Mexico, Wisconsin and Kansas - have challenged such arrangements and won.

To further buttress their argument, Rubio's lawyers, including former Democratic House Speaker Jon Mills, included 31 other interstate and tribal compacts that were authorized by the Florida Legislature.

"Without any constitutional or statutory authority," the petition states, "the governor has purported to bind the state to a 25-year Indian gaming compact that, among other things, authorizes types of gambling that are currently illegal everywhere in Florida and restricts the Legislature's discretion in myriad ways."

The Legislature must approve any deal, Rubio says.

The issue of ratification poses a major roadblock to the deal Crist's team carefully negotiated. It could result in the federal government striking its own deal with the Seminole tribe - one that wouldn't necessarily include a cut of the profits for Florida.

Crist issued a brief statement, voicing disappointment with Rubio's decision, asserting it could delay money for education.

LeMieux wasn't so restrained.

"Oftentimes it's easier to throw rocks than to be a leader," LeMieux said.

LeMieux said Crist negotiated the best deal he could, including a guarantee of at least $100-million a year in revenue for the state.

Whether Crist had a choice is vigorously debated. What is clear is that two of the state's top Republicans have reached a new level of antagonism after months of simmering tension.

Still, Rubio is not without allies in both chambers of the Legislature.

"I have not read the lawsuit in detail, but I approve suing the governor over this," said Sen. Steve Geller, D-Cooper City, an advocate for parimutuel concerns that feel the tribe will have a competitive advantage.

Geller said he hopes to get Senate President Ken Pruitt on board to show the dispute is rooted in policy, not merely "tension" between the governor and the politically ambitious Rubio.

Pruitt's spokeswoman, Kathy Mears, said Monday that he had not decided on a course of action.

Rubio asked the court of consider the matter "expeditiously" because the federal government has about 40 days left to approve the deal.

Attorneys for the Interior Department had not seen the lawsuit Monday.

"The Legislature needs to be hands-off on this," said Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey. He shares concerns about local dog tracks and other venues not being able to offer certain games, but thinks a greater concern is losing the deal.

"If we meddle in this, the federal government will give the tribe the ability to do it anyway and we'll lose out on some much-needed revenue," he said.

The petition states, "The compact most blatantly usurps legislative power by authorizing numerous card games that the Legislature has forbidden in all circumstances."

Those games include blackjack and baccarat, which are prohibited by state law. "Under American constitutional jurisprudence, no executive officer has the authority to override or dispense with criminal law," it reads.

Barry Richard, an attorney for the tribe, said clauses in drafts of the compact that earmarked revenue for education and local communities affected by casino operations were left out of the final version to avoid trampling legislative rights.

The signed compact notes that appropriation of funds from the agreement "are within the exclusive prerogative of Legislature," but Crist recommends giving 95 percent to the Educational Enhancement Trust Fund and 5 percent to communities.

Staff writer Steve Huettel contributed to this report.


Deal details

The 25-year deal between the Seminoles and the state would give the tribe the right to offer Las Vegas-style slot machines and card games such as blackjack and baccarat.

The tribe promises to pay the state a minimum of $100-million in the first year of the deal, $125-million in the second year and $150-million in the third. The Seminoles say the state's cut could be much higher.