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Seminole compact gains traction, new obstacles

Seminole Gaming CEO Jim Allen, Gov. Rick Scott and Chairman James E. Billie answer questions from the media Feb. 1 during a press conference in Hollywood.
Seminole Gaming CEO Jim Allen, Gov. Rick Scott and Chairman James E. Billie answer questions from the media Feb. 1 during a press conference in Hollywood.

HOLLYWOOD — The Seminole Tribe’s revenue sharing gaming compact with Florida Gov. Rick Scott moved closer to ratification in the Florida Legislature Feb. 17 when a Senate committee approved the deal to give Seminole Gaming the exclusive right to add roulette and craps at Tribe casinos and to keep blackjack tables.

The House Regulatory Affairs Committee also overwhelmingly supported ratification Feb. 9. The House Finance and Tax Committee is expected to meet in the first week of March. After committees meet and if both bodies of the Legislature approve the compact, the agreement will guarantee a $3 billion boon to state coffers over the next seven years.

However, the Senate’s Feb. 17 agreement approved by the Senate Regulated Industries Committee was muddied by forwarding attaching bills to the compact that would allow horse and dog track venues in Palm Beach, Brevard, Gadsden, Washington and Lee counties to include slot machines – a compact violation which also infringes on the 1998 Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (IGRA).

The House Finance and Tax Committee is expected to agree with and forward a mirror of the latest Senate plan.

“The good news is that bills are moving in both houses of the Legislature. Ultimately, the goals are to resolve differences that are significant,” said Seminole Tribe spokesperson Gary Bitner.

The road to ratification is complicated, he said, “and never pretty.”

“But the Tribe is fully engaged in the process and intent on seeing it through to the best possible result,” Bitner said.

The Seminole compact passed in 2010 promised the state $1 billion over five years in return for exclusivity on blackjack and baccarat games. The new deal adds roulette and craps and laws that limit slot machines at certain parimutuels such as dog and horse tracks. It also allows slots at one venue in Palm Beach and a new facility in Miami-Dade County.

The Senate and House amendments to allow slots at gaming houses in additional counties throws a wrench in the compact agreement signed by Chairman James E. Billie and Scott in early December. The move may force changes to the new compact agreement or kill the compact all together.

During a Feb. 1 meeting at Tribe Headquarters in Hollywood, Scott, Chairman Billie, Seminole Gaming CEO Jim Allen and others met with media, Tribal citizens and casino employees to reveal concurrent plans for a $1.8 billion Hard Rock hotel and entertainment expansion should the compact deal go through.

The expansion includes an 800-room, guitar-shaped hotel in Hollywood with new restaurants and upgrades to Hard Rock Live and top-tier VIP guest accommodations, such as water entry rooms and butler service.

Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Tampa will also see major changes: a new 500-room hotel tower, rooftop swimming pool, 2,000 capacity entertainment center, additional poker room and several new restaurants.

But Allen said the Tribe’s gaming business in Florida would not be the biggest winner if the compact is approved – job creation will come out on top. The expansion project is projected to result in nearly 19,500 jobs, which include 3,500 that already exist in Seminole Gaming, 4,900 new positions and 14,600 construction jobs.

“The compact is not all about adding new machines,” Allen said. He said the ripple effect of the compact being denied will bring “severe repercussions.”

When asked if legislators understand mandates set forth by IGRA, Scott, who ran for office in 2010 on jobs promises, said lawmakers try to be informed on issues that come before them.

The IGRA is complicated and much debated but it essentially provides tribal gaming ventures, through the National Indian Gaming Commission, a leg up in the gaming world in order for Tribes to achieve economic development, financial independence and self-determination. That means, the state must allow the Tribe above and beyond what is allowed for non-tribal gaming operations across the board.

“[Legislators] heard what impact the compact will have on people and they know that gaming gives the Tribe and all working people a chance. That is why, when I talk about the compact, the biggest issue is about jobs,” Scott said.

As of publication Feb. 25, both sides of the Legislature had yet to put the compact issue to vote. The Florida legislative session ends March 11.