Competitors hungry for Seminole blackjack deal to expire

Author: Associated Press
Courtesy: Rank Group PLC/ MGN

MIAMI (AP) – As Florida lawmakers appear ready to allow key portions of the state’s high-stakes gambling deal with the Seminole to expire, other gambling interests are watching keenly for openings in the multi-billion dollar industry if the tribe and Gov. Rick Scott can’t negotiate something new.

However, it’s not clear if those openings will emerge.

The tribe owns six casinos in Florida, including the highly profitable Hard Rock Casinos in South Florida and Tampa. In 2010, the state and the Seminoles signed a 20-year compact giving the tribe the right to operate slot machines at all its casinos in return for revenue sharing of at least $1 billion over five years.

The deal also gave the tribe the exclusive right to offer house-banked card games like blackjack, chemin de fer and baccarat, also in return for revenue sharing. However, that right expires July 31 unless the Legislature approves a renewal or revision, which would have to be negotiated with Scott. The Legislature’s annual session opens Tuesday and ends May 1.

An attempt last year to renew the provision on banked card games failed.

This year, the roughly $230 million a year the tribe would share with the state has not been included in the forecasts state legislators use to craft Florida’s budget. About $130 million of that money comes from the banked card games, said Bob Jarvis, a professor of gambling law at Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale.

“We’re already building our budget with the assumption it’s gone,” said Senate President Andy Gardiner, an Orlando Republican and gambling opponent. “For us, it doesn’t change how we view the world for the next three years.”

Jarvis says lawmakers likely are bluffing – but the proof will be in how the negotiations play out.

If the provision is not renewed, the tribe would have to discontinue the three games within 90 days, resulting in the loss of 3,000 jobs, said Barry Richard, an attorney for the tribe who also helped negotiate the 2010 compact with former Gov. Charlie Crist.

Richard declined to comment on the status of negotiations with Scott. The federal government also must approve any compact between Florida and the tribe.

“The governor is going to take the time that’s needed to get the best deal for Florida,” said Scott spokeswoman Jackie Schutz.

Banked card games aren’t the only gambling options up for discussion. As other players in the industry seek to expand in Florida, options include allowing non-Seminole casinos to add blackjack or allowing dog tracks to end the requirement that they run a specific number of races in order to operate poker rooms.

Under the current 20-year compact, the Seminole Tribe could end its revenue sharing altogether if slot machines are allowed outside Broward and Miami-Dade counties, or if South Florida’s horse and dog tracks and jai-alai frontons are allowed to have banked card games.

Resorts World Miami, which wants to build a Las Vegas-style resort casino to South Florida, wants the state to address “alternatives, rather than just renewing the monopoly the tribe has,” said lobbyist Brian Ballard. Resorts World Miami is owned by the Malaysia-based Genting Group, one of the world’s largest casino companies.

The gambling industry sees Florida’s large local market and easy Northeastern and Latin American access as ripe for casino expansion compared to saturated markets in Macau, Las Vegas and Atlantic City, Jarvis said.

But Florida legislators have an incentive to block any expansion beyond the Seminole properties, he said. Lawmakers from conservative north Florida oppose gambling for moral reasons, and those from central Florida, including Gardiner, have to consider Disney’s interests. The theme park opposes more casinos.

Meanwhile, another tribe also wants to discuss a compact with the state. The Alabama-based Poarch Creek Band of Indians wants to expand its gambling operations with a casino near Pensacola.

The tribe has suggested it might consider growing and selling marijuana on its Florida Panhandle property if no compact is reached. Scott has so far rebuffed their efforts to open negotiations.

House Speaker Steve Crisafulli said the Legislature has time to consider the benefits of renewing the Seminole Tribe’s compact under its current terms or expanding the gambling options.

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