Crist, Seminoles Agree to Compact

Fla. Gov. Crist, Seminole leaders said April 6 they have agreed to a gaming compact

Florida Gov. Charlie Crist and leaders of the Seminole Tribe of Florida said April 6 that they have agreed to a Gaming Compact for the Seminoles’ seven casinos in the state. 

Leaders of the Florida House and Senate agreed to terms of the compact April 2.  A spokeswoman for Crist said he has not set a date for signing the compact. Both houses of the legislature still have to vote in favor of the compact--with approvals expected by April 9 according to sources in the state capital of Tallahassee.

Those approvals would resolve a three-year dispute between Crist and the legislature on Seminole gaming operations. The pending agreements provide long-awaited benefits for some segments of Florida’s pari-mutuel industry, as well as a series of changes for the Seminoles.

On April 8 or April 9, both houses are scheduled to vote on similar bills that would make significant changes for the Florida Thoroughbred racing and breeding industries and for other pari-mutuel facilities in the state.

Changes, which would take effect on July 1, 2010, would include:

*  The state tax rate would drop from 50% to 35% on revenues from the Las Vegas-style slot machines at Gulfstream Park, Calder Casino & Race Course, and three other pari-mutuels in the southeast counties of Miami-Dade and Broward.

* Hialeah Park, in Miami-Dade County, would be eligible to build a casino with Las Vegas-style slots.  Under its Quarter Horse permit, Hialeah would be able to run up to half its races as Thoroughbred races--with a requirement to hold a minimum of 20 race cards per year.

* The Ocala Breeders’ Sales Co. would be able to hold an annual not-for-profit Thoroughbred meet.

* Poker rooms at pari-mutuel facilities throughout the state could be open 24 hours a day, rather than the current maximum 12 hours, under each permit. Tampa Bay Downs is among pari-mutuels that would benefit from that change.

However, the House and Senate bills would not allow pari-mutuels outside Miami-Dade and Broward counties to add bingo-style slot machines. Adding those machines has been a goal of Tampa Bay Downs and the state’s Greyhound tracks and jai-alai frontons.

The pari-mutuel provisions of the pending bills are similar to those that were in a bill the legislature passed and Crist signed into law last year. That law was not enacted because of a dispute over the bill’s provisions related to the Seminole casinos.

The pending compact has a five-year term, with these highlights:

* The Seminoles would have exclusive rights to blackjack and baccarat, but only at four of their casinos.

They began adding those table games in 2008, under provisions of a compact they signed with Crist in 2007. The Florida Supreme Court ruled that compact was illegal, because the legislature did not approve it.  But the Seminoles have continued to operate the table games.

* In return for an exclusivity on the two table games, the Seminoles would pay the state a minimum of $1 billion from gaming revenues over five years.

In addition, the $287 million from gaming revenues that the Seminoles have paid since 2007 would be taken from an escrow fund and transferred to the state treasury.

That payment would help cut into a projected $3.2 billion budget deficit that Florida is projecting for the fiscal year that begins July 1, 2010.  The urgency of reducing that deficit led Crist and the legislature to step up their efforts to resolve the Seminole gaming issue.

In recent weeks, several House and Senate members have said that in future years they are prepared to consider bills that would permit pari-mutuels outside Broward and Miami-Dade counties to add some casino gaming.  Those changes would only be possible after the end of the five-year Seminole contract, and likely would be part of negotiations for a new compact that would begin in 2015.