he accord will provide more than us$ 400 million next year, covering part of a large shortfall in the state budget. In the longer term, the agreement - endorsed by Governor Charlie Crist, legislative leaders and the Seminole tribe - settles a long-running dispute over what types of games the tribe can offer at its facilities, including the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Tampa and properties primarily in South Florida.
Gamblers will probably not notice because the Seminoles have been offering the games for three years. The state looked the other way, legally, and the Seminoles put part of the revenue into a fund to pay the state when a deal was finally forged. The casinos are likely to add more slot machines and other games.
If gamblers won't see a big change, the pact offers a far better position for state lawmakers, who now may be able to avoid some cutbacks of state employees and services. "This really bodes well for the future of Florida," said Crist, who has been trying since 2007 to reach a gambling agreement with the Seminoles.
Crist said the agreement will provide "hundreds of millions of dollars" for the state budget "at a time when we need it so significantly." Crist originally said he wanted the gambling revenue to go to Florida schools. But the deal does not require that it do so, and instead its allocation will be determined by the Legislature.
The agreement will immediately give lawmakers access to us$ 270 million that has already been paid by the tribe. It also provides a schedule of minimum annual payments beginning at us$ 150 million and rising to more than us$ 200 million in later years. The initial five-year deal will provide more than us$ 1 billion to the state, according to analysts.
Crist's 2007 agreement with the tribe was overturned by the state Supreme Court. And the second proposal last year was rejected by a House committee. Under the new agreement, which has to be ratified by the tribal council and the House and Senate, the Seminoles will get the exclusive right to offer casino-style card games, like blackjack, at five of its seven facilities, including the Hard Rock in Tampa and three casinos in Broward County.
The card game agreement covers five years - with the state having the option of ending or continuing the games at its conclusion. Additionally, the tribe will operate Las Vegas-style slot machines at all seven facilities under a 20-year agreement. "I think everyone will benefit as well as the Seminole Tribe," said Mitchell Cypress, chairman of the tribal council. "It's been a long journey."
Representative Bill Galvano, one of the key negotiators on the pact, called it "a very reasonable deal for the state." If the state did not reach an agreement, Galvano said it could have led to years of costly litigation by the federal government over what type of games the Seminoles could offer. He also said it gives the state time to evaluate the impact of the casino games over the next five years. "At the end of the day it cleans up and resolves a controversy that has been festering for at least two decades," Galvano said.
While the Seminoles won the right to operate their casino games, the state's 27 dog tracks, horse tracks and jai-alai frontons also secured some benefits. The biggest winners were the tracks and frontons in Broward and Miami-Dade counties that now offer slot machines - which were approved by local voter referendums. The state tax rate on those machines will be slashed from 50 % to 35 %.
The benefits for the tracks and frontons elsewhere in the state may not be as substantial. They will get a chance to expand existing poker games, with higher limits and more operating hours. They will also be allowed to install 350 electronic bingo or "historic racing" machines at each of their facilities - although some industry experts question how lucrative those machines will be.
As part of the agreement, the tribe and lawmakers stipulated that those electronic gaming machines offered by the tracks outside of South Florida be designed so that they did not resemble slot machines and would not be competitive with the tribe's games.
Senator Dennis Jones, who was the Senate's lead negotiator, said the agreement represents a "balancing act" between the tribe and the existing tracks and frontons. "It's about a partnership where everybody wins," Jones said. The agreement is expected to lead to the expansion of the Seminole casinos, including Tampa and Broward County.
James Allen, the CEO of Seminole gaming, said the tribe would go back and re-evaluate expansion plans that were first considered in 2007 when Crist approved the first gambling agreement. He said the new agreement was important to settle the "scope of gaming" in the state and define what competition the tribe would be facing as it expanded its facilities. "It creates a real incentive for us to expand, hire more people and create more destinations," Allen said.
The alternative could have been much worse - particularly if the federal government moved to shut down the existing games. "Nobody wanted to be in a position where we had to bring 3,000 people together and say you're out of a job," he said.