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Seminoles edge closer to gambling deal

The Seminole Tribe of Florida is inching closer to completing a gambling deal with the state that would allow it to keep the slot machines and card games at its Hard Rock casinos in return for $150 million in annual payments to the state.

Lawyers for the tribe and the governor's office presented a proposed compact to House and Senate negotiators Wednesday in Tallahassee. Rep. Bill Galvano, and the Senate president's chief of staff Bud Kneip, responded by explaining which provisions lawmakers wanted modified.

The tribe will present the options to its tribal counsel for approval by the end of the
week, just days before by a Monday deadline imposed by the Legislature.

"We'll take it under review and get back to them," said Max Osceola, Seminole councilman. He said negotiations this week had brought them closer.

Galvano, a Bradenton Republican and the House's lead negotiator, called the proposal ‘‘a reasonable approach'' that he thinks legislators will support. But, he added, if the tribe comes back with a revised plan that "deviates significantly from where we intended to go as a Legislature," it may be time for the federal government to take over the talks.

If Gov. Charlie Crist does not negotiate a deal with the Seminoles by Monday, lawmakers can ask the U.S. Department of Interior to step in. The tribe wants blackjack, baccarat and chemin de fer games, which are considered an expansion of gambling in Florida requiring legislative approval, probably during an expected special session in October.

In addition to the deadline imposed by legislators, the parimutuel industry has kept the pressure on to get a compact signed. Lawmakers gave horse and dog tracks and jai alai frontons in South Florida lower tax rates, unlimited poker and expanded hours to increase their revenues -- but those provisions take effect only if a compact is signed.

On Wednesday, it appeared that both the Legislature and the tribe had agreed to compromises. But the major point of contention -- what to do with the tribe's annual payments if the state increases competition for gambling dollars by allowing casino games at other parimutuel facilities around the state -- remained unresolved.

The proposal that the tribe and the governor agreed to would allow the Seminoles to cease payments if slot machines or casino games are allowed at horse and dog tracks and jai alai frontons outside of Miami-Dade and Broward counties, and reduce payments by 50 percent if banked card games are allowed at casinos in Miami-Dade and Broward.

Galvano said legislators agree that the tribe should cease payments if gambling is expanded outside of South Florida but not if new casino games are offered in Miami Dade, Broward or Palm Beach counties, or at North Florida parimutuels. In those cases, lawmakers say the tribe should reduce its payments on a sliding scale, if its revenues drop below $1.37 billion.

The provision to allow slow machines in Palm Beach County would benefit Palm Beach Kennel Club, which is in the district of Senate President Jeff Atwater.

"Palm Beach is on the cusp of expanding gaming and you also have issues in North Florida where there are existing (casinos) just across the border," Galvano said.

The tribe insisted that parimutuels in Tampa not be allowed to expand gambling, Galvano said, because the Seminole's Hard Rock Casino in west Hillsborough "is a big earner for them."

Under the proposal, the tribe would continue to operate its slot machines and blackjack and other banked card games at its Hard Rock casinos in Hollywood and Tampa as well as its casinos in Coconut Creek, Brighton, Immokalee and Big Cypress.

Galvano said legislators couldn't support allowing banked cards games at Brighton and Big Cypress but were willing to let the tribe keep them in Immokalee.

The proposal allows for Hialeah race track to be converted to a quarter horse race track and eventually run thoroughbred races and slot machines. It also closes the loophole that now would allow Miami International Airport to operate slot machines at its passenger terminals.

 "The message that I hope resonates with the tribe is that the path to bringing resolution is one that involves a compact that Is very close to the one that was sent forward to the Legislature," Galvano said. "If a compact comes out on Monday that is drastically different... it may be at that point that it goes to the feds."

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