Crist argues Seminole gambling deal is legal

Legislative approval isn't necessary, the governor's lawyers tell the top state court.

By STEVE BOUSQUET and ALEX LEARY, Times Staff Writers
Published December 4, 2007

TALLAHASSEE - Five attorneys for Gov. Charlie Crist told the state Supreme Court on Monday that the governor negotiated a casino gambling deal with the Seminole Tribe "solely within the bounds of his authority" and it does not require legislative approval.

Crist's legal team submitted written legal arguments in response to a lawsuit by House Speaker Marco Rubio, who opposes the casino gambling deal.

Rubio, R-Miami, claims Crist exceeded his authority by unilaterally negotiating a deal last month that included table games not now legal in Florida. Crist says he had no choice: Either he negotiated a deal that was fair to the tribe and compensated taxpayers, or federal authorities would approve the new games anyway and the state would get nothing.

The crux of the lawsuit, in which the Senate also opposes Crist, is whether a gambling agreement negotiated by a governor must be submitted to legislators for approval.

Crist notes that Rubio had two opportunities in the 2007 legislative session to pass a bill that would have mandated legislative approval. But Rubio didn't take up House Bill 209, sponsored by a freshman Democrat, or Senate Bill 160, which passed the Senate 39-1 and was available for the House's consideration in the final days of the session.

"The House of Representatives, presumably at the direction of Petitioner Rubio, twice chose not to take up bills which would have formally expressed the Legislature's desire that the Governor submit compacts to the Legislature for ratification," according to Crist's response. "While the issue did not merit Petitioners' action during the legislative session, Petitioners now demand this Court's immediate attention via extraordinary writ."

The legislation that never passed would have designated Crist as the negotiator of the compact, but required ratification by the Legislature.

Rep. Jim Waldman, a first-term Democrat from Coconut Creek, said he talked with Rubio and others about getting the bill heard, but nothing happened.

"It's kind of disingenuous at this point to say we didn't have the opportunity to ratify the compact," Waldman said.

On Monday, Crist said, "Everybody has their own timing when they feel issues are ripe, and I respect that (Rubio) feels it's ripe for him now."

Rubio spokeswoman Jill Chamberlin said Rubio was aware of the legislation, but noted the hundreds of bills that come up and never pass.

"There were a lot of bills, and he was very focused on the property tax issue," Chamberlin said.

In his court filing, Crist argued that he avoided encroaching on legislative powers like the power of the purse. The Constitution gives the Legislature exclusive authority to appropriate or spend money, but Crist argued that he can seek more money, "so long as the governor does not attempt to direct how the new revenue is appropriated."

The compact includes Crist's strong recommendation that the new money, at least $100-million a year for 25 years, be spent mostly for public schools.

As for a legislative argument that Crist has no power to sanction games such as blackjack and baccarat that are illegal in Florida, Crist's brief said: "Gaming on sovereign Indian lands is governed exclusively by federal law. The State has no regulatory jurisdiction over conduct on Indian lands."

The Seminole Tribe also filed a response Monday, backing up Crist's arguments and asserting that the issue is outside the Florida Supreme Court's reach. Oral arguments in the case are set for Dec. 12.

Steve Bousquet can be reached at bousquet@sptimes.com or (850) 224-7263.