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Weather the storm

This has been a very strange winter out on the Brighton Seminole Reservation. The warm weather seems to have confused the plants and animals. Flowers that normally bloom in the spring have already spread their blossoms in December’s warm winds. Warmer waters have the alligators all frisky when they’re not supposed to be mating and the fish all biting even when they’re not supposed to be hungry!

I don’t remember anyone predicting our winter would be spring and our coats and jackets would still be hanging in the closet here in February. But, there are so many factors that control the fate of the weather that not even the smartest weathermen, with their Doppler radars and satellite feeds, can accurately foretell Mother Nature’s weather personality. They say the old Seminoles who lived in the ‘glades could tell when a hurricane was coming and would always find safe haven when the big storms came rolling across the sawgrass and prairies.

Today, we call it a drop in barometric pressure when the hair rises on your arms and the feeling of a headache comes on. Back then, the Seminoles somehow knew it meant a bad storm was coming. In fact, no Seminoles are known to have perished in the great hurricanes of the ‘20s and ‘30s that killed so many around Lake Okeechobee.

While all this was going on, the Seminole Tribe weathered a storm that came up unexpectedly in the Florida Legislature. In an effort to soften Florida’s financial woes, a bill was presented that would significantly expand gaming beyond Indian reservations. And, at the same time, it seems gaming became an issue in every part of the state. Dog tracks and jai-alai frontons reached for slot machines. They even started pari-mutuel betting on barrel racing, a rodeo sport, hoping that would make them eligible for slot machines someday.

Many called to inquire what the Seminoles thought about all this. That was easy. The Seminoles could not take sides in the issue. But we did have the biggest dog in the fight. Our Compact, which was signed by the Governor of Florida and approved by the Legislature almost two years ago, gives the Seminole Tribe exclusive rights to conduct casino gaming in Florida for 20 years. In return, the Tribe pays a gigantic tax. In fact, by the second anniversary of the Compact, the Seminole Tribe will have paid more than $500 million to the State for this exclusive right.

Our stand was merely to protect our Compact. It is wrong to break any legal contract. And this Compact is a legal contract. If it is broken, then the contract says the Tribe’s payments to the State would immediately cease. Many questioned if taxes on new casinos would even be near the money the Tribe had already demonstrated it would pay. On this subject, we appreciate the stand taken by Attorney General Pam Bondi against non-Indian gaming expansion outside of Broward and Dade counties. We appreciate Gov. Rick Scott backing up his Attorney General. They stood strong in defense of a legal contract protecting the people and the interests of both the State of Florida and the Seminole Tribe.

With support for the new legislation dropping like flies during a hard freeze, the bill’s sponsors withdrew their “destination resorts casino” bill. Of course, we know that it will be back, just like the weather, riding the winds of change. The next time, it may have a different name and a different head. And a million statistics that support why we should and why we shouldn’t expand gaming in Florida. We can only be confident that our Governor, Attorney General and State Legislature will stand behind the Seminole Tribe and continue to protect us from further assaults on our Compact.

As one famous songwriter pointed out: “You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the winds blow.”

Sho-naa-bish.

James E. Billie is Chairman of the Seminole Tribe of Florida.

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