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Gov. Rick Scott

Gov. Rick Scott holds cards in gambling issue

By Dara Kam, The News Service of Florida

House and Senate leaders are reaching consensus on a plan that would allow stand-alone casinos in South Florida, if voters approve. But the proposal hinges on whether Gov. Rick Scott, who’s playing his cards close to his vest, seals a deal with the Seminole Tribe.

On Friday, Scott gave the first indication that negotiations with the tribe, critical to success in the House, are on track.

“Governor Scott is focused on renewing the state’s compact with the Seminoles to get the best deal for Floridians. Other gaming issues, including destination casinos, are being discussed by members of the Legislature, but the governor’s immediate focus is the future of the Seminole compact,” Scott spokesman Frank Collins said.

A renewed deal with the Seminoles is a cornerstone of House Speaker Will Weatherford’s two-pronged approach that would make two “destination resorts” — hotel and convention centers with slot machines and perhaps other gambling activities — possible in South Florida. The state’s current deal with the tribe is slated to sunset in mid-2015.

And, Weatherford said, he wants negotiations with the tribe finalized this year, or there won’t be any deal at all.

The Seminole Tribe of Florida spent nearly two decades trying to get the state to approve casinos on tribal lands in Broward County and Tampa. In 2010, Gov. Charlie Crist and the tribe struck a deal, authorized by the Legislature, which gave the Seminoles a 20-year contract to operate slot machines along with exclusive rights to operate banked card games like blackjack and baccarat for five years.

In exchange, the Seminoles agreed to give the state a minimum $1 billion over five years but can halt the payments if slot machines exist anywhere outside of Broward and Miami-Dade counties, excluding those operated by other tribes. The compact also allows the tribe to reduce its payments if slot machines are allowed at any facilities that weren’t already operating in Broward or Miami-Dade, except for Hialeah Race Track, when the deal was inked.

Time is at stake for hopes of a gambling deal as the 60-day legislative session, which begins March 4, approaches. Wrapping up a new deal with the Seminoles, who hope to add roulette and craps to their casinos, and giving lawmakers enough time to authorize it and any other gambling proposals could be a push, said Sen. Bill Galvano, who helped craft the 2010 agreement with the Seminoles that took years to finalize.

Weatherford also wants to require that voters approve a constitutional amendment before casinos would be allowed, he told The News Service of Florida last week. The constitutional amendment also would require any future expansion of gambling to get statewide approval.

Weatherford said he would prefer to limit gambling. “But I am also not burying my head in the sand. I have recognized that gaming is expanding without our control or direction, and that’s a very dangerous place to be for the state of Florida,” he said.

But the two chambers appear to be divided about a constitutional limit on gambling.

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