Showdown looming over Seminole gambling agreement

South Florida Sun-Sentinel

Florida's five-year agreement allowing the Seminole Tribe of Florida to offer blackjack and other table games at its casinos will expire on July 31. By that time, the tribe will have paid the state $1 billion, enjoyed a gambling monopoly that has been the envy of its competitors and inspired a host of interests to lobby against its renewal.

The agreement, part of a 20-year deal known as the Seminole compact, is easily the biggest gambling issue facing the Florida Legislature this year.

A new agreement would be negotiated by Gov. Rick Scott and approved by the Legislature, which opens its next session March 3. A new deal, however, is no sure thing.

"The one thing I can tell you with pretty good certainty is that anybody who can tell you with certainty they know what's going to happen is wrong," said Steve Geller, a former state senator and ex-president of the National Council of Legislators from Gaming States.

Casino operators, experts and legislators say a new agreement won't be approved unless it benefits casinos at horse tracks, dog tracks and jai-alai frontons, which have long complained about having to pay a 35 percent tax on slot profits and not being allowed to offer blackjack.

Senate president Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, and other state legislators are anti-gambling, and likely will vote against any proposed agreement. If an agreement is not reached, the Seminoles will have 90 days to discontinue blackjack operations.

From 2013 to 2014, the Seminoles earned about $2.1 billion from gambling. Per the agreement, they paid the state about $130 million to operate blackjack and other table games, and about $120 million to offer slot machines at their casinos in Tampa, Brighton and Immokalee. (Federal law does not require the tribe to pay to keep slot machines in Broward and Miami-Dade counties, where they are legal.) If a new agreement is not reached, the state would lose that $130 million in blackjack fees.

If the pari-mutuels get nothing out of a new deal, they'll be in trouble, said Isadore Havenick, vice president of Magic City Casino in Miami. Havenick and the other operators of South Florida's racetrack casinos met with Gov. Scott in January.

"We're eight local businesses," he says. "And we're just asking to be treated equally and have a place at the table."

The eight racetrack casinos in Broward and Miami-Dade took in $531 million last fiscal year from slots and poker, barely surpassing what the Seminole Hard Rock Hollywood alone made ($528 million) with slots, poker and table games.

With so many competing interests, a number of other gambling issues could shape a new blackjack agreement. The key ones include:

Hotel-resort casinos: The Seminoles are asking that proposals by national companies to build casinos in South Florida be shelved for the length of any new agreement.

Upstate pari-mutuels: Five counties, including Palm Beach, have passed nonbindingreferendums for slots. They are asking Gov. Scott and the Legislature to approve casinos in their counties,rather than going through a statewide referendum.

Decoupling: South Florida's dog tracks and jai-alai frontons no longer want to be required to hold races or matches in order to offer slot machines. But jai-alai players, dog breeders and trainers say they'll lose their jobs if racing is reduced or eliminated.

Nsortal@SouthFlorida.com

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