By Dara Kam
News Service of Florida
TALLAHASSEE | Gov. Rick Scott and the Seminole Tribe reached an agreement about the tribe’s “exclusive” rights to offer banked card games such as blackjack, in a move that took the Legislature by surprise.
The settlement agreement, submitted to a federal judge on Wednesday, focuses on a portion of a 20-year gambling deal, called a “compact,” that expired in 2015. That portion of the deal involves banked card games.
Under the deal, approved in 2010, the tribe guaranteed $1 billion in payments to the state for the exclusive rights to offer the banked card games for five years.
The tribe sued the state when the agreement expired, accusing state gambling officials of breaching the compact by allowing what are known as “designated player” card games at horse and dog tracks and jai alai frontons.
A federal judge last fall sided with the Seminoles, saying the designated player games violated state law that prohibits pari-mutuels from conducting banked card games.
But the Seminoles continued to make payments to the state, and continued to conduct banked card games, even after state lawmakers failed to strike a new deal with the tribe during this year’s legislative session that ended in May.
In the agreement released Wednesday, the state agreed to drop its appeal of the federal court decision and to take “aggressive enforcement action” against pari-mutuels operating banked card games that violate state law.
The deal also frees up at least $200 million in payments to the state, something state leaders — including Scott — are eager to tap into as Florida’s economic outlook worsens.
Even so, Scott’s settlement with the Seminoles took legislative leaders by surprise, especially after they played key roles in negotiations with the tribe over the past two years.
“At first blush, I’m not sure that the stipulated settlement agreement does anything more than make it more difficult for us going forward to negotiate gaming with the Seminole Tribe,” said Sen. Bill Galvano, a Bradenton Republican who’s been in charge of gambling negotiations and who is slated to take over as president of the Senate after next year’s elections. “It’s almost as if we’re guaranteeing for the tribe that the status quo will continue for the balance of the compact.”
Miami Republican Jose Felix Diaz, who shepherded negotiations on behalf of the state House before leaving the chamber to run in a special election for the Senate, was also unaware of the settlement agreement struck by Scott when contacted Wednesday evening by The News Service of Florida.
“At all times during the past three years, the House and Senate have worked in concert with the governor’s office to come up with a plan that made sense for the state,” Diaz said. “To the best of my knowledge, no legislators were consulted on this specific agreement. I am still reviewing the details of the settlement.”
Despite its seemingly harsh language, the settlement agreement likely won’t have any impact on the games currently being conducted by many of the state’s pari-mutuel facilities, according to lawyer John Lockwood, who represents numerous gambling facilities.
“We are in compliance with state law,” Lockwood said in a telephone interview Wednesday.
The Seminoles hailed the latest deal in a statement issued by spokesman Gary Bitner.
“The settlement agreement ensures a stable future for the members and employees of the Seminole Tribe of Florida, and the Tribe appreciates the hard work of Gov. Scott and DBPR (the Department of Business and Professional Regulation) to get it done,” Bitner said.