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Update: Legislators reach $1.5 billion five-year gambling agreement with Seminoles

Legislators reached a $1.5 billion, five-year gambling agreement with the Seminole Tribe Friday, after closed-door negotiations resulted in a deal that will give the tribe the exclusive right to operate table games in South Florida and expand slot machines to it other casinos in the rest of the state.

"We feel we have an agreement we can take back to our respective chambers," said Rep. Bill Galvano, a Bradenton Republican and the legislature's lead negotiator. He spent Good Friday in secret day-long talks with Sen. Dennis Jones, R-Seminole, House and Senate staff, lawyers for Gov. Charlie Crist and representatives for the tribe.

But, Galvano added, "it's not a done deal until we get it through the House, the Senate and the tribal council."

 Under the plan, he said, the tribe would pay the state $150 million in the first two years, $233 million in the third and fourth years and $234 million in the fifth year for the exclusive operation of black jack at their two casinos in Broward and casinos in Immokalee and Tampa. All seven of the tribes casinos would continue to operate Las Vegas-style slot machines and make payments to the state for 20 years.

   This is the third time the tribe has reached a tentative agreement with the state since it began negotiating over slot machines, but it is the only time it has dealt directly with the Legislature. After attempting to bring casinos to Florida since the late 1980s, the tribe signed agreements with Crist in November 2007 and August 2009, but both were rejected by the legislature.

    The Good Friday agreement is the highest up-front payment that has been negotiated with the tribe of all three of the proposed compacts and, Galvano said, "is a very positive deal for the state.

   "It's a reasonable approach to this issue and, if completed, it will bring closure to a controversy that has extended for almost two decades," he said.

    "It's a reasonable approach to this issue and, if completed, it will bring closure to a controversy that has extended for almost two decades," he said.

   The tribe considers the accord "a deal," said Barry Richard, the tribe's attorney, but he's learned "at any point something can go wrong." But he was very encouraged.

   "It's light years from where we were before," Richard said. "This is the first time that we've been talking with the Legislature and it's a been a very vigorous conversation and everybody's at the table."

    The measure also attempts to help horse and dog tracks and jai alai frontons in Florida better compete with the Seminole Tribe's growing gambling presence.

    The agreement gives the parimutuels extended betting limits for poker, extended hours, and it puts the tribe under similar regulation now required of casinos in Miami Dade and Broward, Galvano said. Legislators also expect to lower the tax rate for the Seminole's competitors in Miami-Dade and Broward in separate legislation.

    Under the proposed compact, Palm Beach County Kennel Club would be allowed to move its racing permit to a new location, and future legislatures could to authorize expanded games for the 19 tracks and frontons outside of Miami Dade and Broward.

    Those expansions could give them 350 video bingo and historic race machines, with definitions that require those games not to operate like slot machines, Galvano said, definitions he expects may disappoint some parimutuels.

    "Those games are not what's currently being manufactured," he said, but he expects manufacturers to respond by developing machines that fit the need.

    The negotiations were snagged temporarily Friday by a surprise move by Senate leaders to allow the Florida Lottery to let its ticket vendors install instant ticket machines that sell pull tabs, a move that could allow at dog tracks in Palm Beach, Jacksonville, Collier and other counties further expand their gaming options.

    The final agreement allows lottery dispensing machines that include video advertisements but not the kind that play or look like slot machines, Galvano said.

    Galvano emphasized that there is no agreement to authorize any of the expanded games and that the House "will not approve them this year." But it opens the door to future legislatures to address the issue without having to renegotiate the compact, he said.

   If the Legislature allows horse tracks and other parimutuels to operate blackjack and table games after five years, the tribe's payments to the state would be reduced but continue for slot machines only, for the next 20 years.

   Those payments would end, however, if the state approved casino-style video lottery terminals or other casino games outside of Miami-Dade and Broward counties, creating competition for the tribe.