TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Gov. Charlie Crist, the Seminole tribe of Florida and once-reluctant lawmakers have signed off on a gambling deal guaranteed to bring at least $1 billion to the state over the next five years.
And after that, Florida would be poised to become the Las Vegas of the Southeastern United States, according to the House's chief gambling negotiator Bill Galvano.
"That's a very real probability. Yes," Galvano, R-Bradenton said. Galvano, Sen. Dennis Jones and representatives of the governor's office and the tribe hashed out final details of the agreement on Good Friday and announced with little notice this morning that they had a deal.
The lynchpin of the deal is the five-year agreement with the Seminoles giving them the exclusive rights to run banked card games, including blackjack, at five of their seven facilities, including their lucrative Tampa Hard Rock casino that brings in at least half of all the tribe's Florida gambling revenue, according to Galvano.
Most important for the tribe is the prohibition against any of the state's pari-mutuels outside of Broward and Miami-Dade counties to run the card games.
"When the tribe is committing this type of money, it's important to know the scope of gaming that we're dealing with and what kind of competition or exclusivity you have," said Jim Allen, chief of the tribe's gambling operations.
The third time could be the charm for the Seminoles' gambling agreement — lawmakers twice before rejected compacts struck between the tribe and Crist.
Galvano had steadfastly refused to allow the tribe to operate the banked card games, although the Seminoles began running them without authorization from the state for at least a year. Federal authorities had repeatedly threatened to intervene and make up their own rules for the games if the state and the tribe did not come to an agreement.
The latest arrangement, which Crist is expected to sign as soon as Wednesday, gives the Seminoles five years to ramp up operations while the state considers opening the doors to the European and Las Vegas-based casinos that have come courting.
That's why the new deal requires that the Seminoles keep paying the state even if another deal is struck with one of the gambling operations.
The five year term also gives the state "an opportunity to catch our breath," Galvano said. "At that point we know what the deal is and we have the ability to decide if banked card games is something we want in our borders."
Under the first two compacts signed by Crist, the money from the tribe would have been earmarked for education. But the new deal allows lawmakers to spend the $1 billion anywhere they want.
"This really bodes well for the future of Florida," Crist, flanked by representatives of the tribe including chairman Mitchell Cypress and a bipartisan contingent of lawmakers, said at a press conference this morning. "The compact will help improve the quality of life for all Floridians and it could benefit the tribe and all our entire state."
The Senate could pass the agreement Thursday, the same day Galvano's Select Committee on Seminole Indian Compact Review is expected to approve it.
"This cleans up and resolves a controversy that has been festering for the last two decades," Galvano said.
Palm Beach Kennel Club owner Pat Rooney Jr. was disappointed with the latest negotiations, however.
He and pari-mutuel owners in Tampa Bay and elsewhere in the state had hoped lawmakers would allow them to operate video slot machines, or "slots-lite" to boost their revenue and compete with the nearby Seminole casinos.
"Just from an economic standpoint, we're at a disadvantage with the product they have," said Rooney, who is running for state House.
Rooney's lobbyists have been walking the Capitol halls for more than a year to drum up support for their issue. Rooney said he's at the mercy of the legislature.
"Sometimes we agree and sometimes we disagree. On this one, obviously we feel like if we were given the opportunity to compete we could. They're essentially making the decision that they're not going to allow us to do that," he said.
The Senate's head gambling negotiator Dennis Jones said lawmakers considered PBKC and the Tampa Bay tracks but left them out because "we didn't feel it was a big enough issue to take all the other positions and put them at risk."
Rooney concluded with a statement regarding the Seminole compact and other deals that rang throughout the Capitol on Tuesday: "It is what it is."
"We'll keep fighting. You can fight as long as you want. But at some point it is what it is," he said.