Florida has 60 days to reach gambling deal with tribe 6-27-07

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) - The U.S. Interior Department has told Gov. Charlie Crist to reach a deal with the Seminole Indian tribe by mid-August that will allow it to expand gambling at six casinos around Florida.

In a letter to Crist, Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne said he would rather see the two sides reach an agreement than have the federal government enforce rules that would allow the Seminoles to start Las Vegas-style gaming.

“If the parties do not reach an agreement on all or most of the outstanding issues within the next 60 days, I will review my options at that time,” Kempthorne said in the letter received by Crist's office June 22 and obtained Wednesday by The Associated Press.

The tribe argues that because Las Vegas-style slot machines are allowed at Broward County horse and dog tracks and its jai-alai fronton, it is entitled to install any form of so-called Class III gaming, such as black jack and roulette.

If Florida doesn't make a deal and the federal government is forced to impose rules that allow expanded gambling at the tribe's casinos, the state will not receive any money, said Barry Richard, a lawyer representing the Seminoles.

But the state could agree to receive a percentage of the tribe's revenue or a per-machine fee in exchange for granting exclusive rights on types of gambling.

“The tribe wants a good working relationship with state government and the tribe thinks it's appropriate for them to contribute a portion of the income to the state treasury,” Richard said.

The Seminoles have casinos in Tampa, Hollywood, Brighton, Immokalee, Coconut Creek and at the Big Cypress reservation. Right now, they have Class II slot machines that are based on bingo. Players compete against each other for jackpots instead of against the machine, as is the case in Class III gambling.

In 2004, voters statewide allowed Broward and Miami-Dade counties to decide whether slots should be allowed at horse and dog tracks and jai-alai frontons. Broward voters approved slots and Miami-Dade voters rejected them.

Negotiations under then-Gov. Jeb Bush, who was strongly opposed to expanded gambling, didn't get very far. While Crist, who took office in January, has said he opposes an expansion of gambling, he also said he would like to reach an agreement with the tribe.

“My client and I are satisfied with the response that we have had from Gov. Crist's office and we believe that the discussions thus far have been productive,” Richard said. “The Bush administration discussion never went anywhere. We think that Gov. Crist seems to be receptive to reaching a compact and doing it within 60 days.”

“We've had a couple of good meetings with the Seminole Indians and I believe that we will come to an agreement. We have to. That's what the secretary of the interior said,” said George LeMieux, Crist's chief of staff.

Crist has instructed LeMieux to negotiate a deal that will allow the state to receive an appropriate amount of revenue while gaining assurances that gamblers can have confidence in the way the casinos and their games are run.