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State to tribe: Prepare to end blackjack games at casinos

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Florida and the Seminole Tribe of Florida seem headed for a showdown about the operation of the tribe’s successful casinos.

A deal authorizing blackjack and other types of card games at casinos such as the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Tampa expires Friday.

The state’s top gambling regulator wrote a letter to the tribe chairman Monday asking for a meeting where tribal leaders are expected to give state officials a timeline for closing down blackjack tables.

Ken Lawson, the secretary of the Department of Business and Professional Regulation, pointed out that the existing compact requires the tribe to close its blackjack tables within 90 days if legislators do not renew the provision. A proposal to extend the games for one year was considered but did not pass the Florida Legislature.

Although Lawson wrote in his letter that the state and tribal officials “continue to enjoy an unprecedented amount of cooperation,” the move is probably the prelude to a court battle. Lawson works for Gov. Rick Scott.

Last month, Tribal Council Chairman James Billie wrote a letter to state officials asserting the casinos could keep the card games in place beyond the expiration date because Florida regulators violated the gambling agreement by allowing South Florida race tracks to offer electronic versions of card games.

That letter called for state and tribal officials to meet in the next 30 days to try to resolve the dispute but warned that if those talks failed, the two sides would go to mediation and eventually federal court. The tribe, however, said it would continue to make payments to the state for the card games as a “gesture of good faith.”

Gary Bitner, a spokesman for the tribe, said Monday that the tribe intends to follow the dispute process outlined under federal law and maintain the blackjack tables at their current locations.

The looming battle between the state and tribe creates another complication in the state’s gambling landscape as outside companies continue to want to build casinos and owners of existing horse and dog tracks are pushing to add slot machines at their locations. In the past several years, efforts to revise the state’s gambling laws have floundered in the Florida Legislature.

The Seminoles and Florida first reached a deal in 2010 to give the tribe exclusive rights to have blackjack and other card games at three Broward County casinos and others in Immokalee and Tampa. That deal guaranteed more than $1 billion in revenue to the state.

Documents obtained last year by The Associated Press showed Scott was willing to extend the compact and let the Seminoles add roulette and craps at its South Florida casinos. Those same documents also show Scott was willing to let the tribe build a casino on its Fort Pierce reservation. The proposed deal would have also likely blocked the construction of any Las Vegas-styled casinos in Miami for the next seven years. In exchange, the Republican governor would have gotten $2 billion for the state.

The deal was never finalized because top legislators opposed it. Scott wanted legislators to hold a special session in May 2014 to approve the new deal.

Reprinted with permission of the Associated Press.

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