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Gambling deal with Seminole Tribe still has a long way to go

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Want a sure bet? The gambling agreement between Gov. Rick Scott and the Seminole Tribe is going to face changes over the next three months – if it’s approved at all.

The deal signed Tuesday calls for a guaranteed $3 billion over seven years for Florida in exchange for the state agreeing to limit the tribe’s competition and let it operate table games such as roulette and craps at its seven casinos. If approved as is, it will ensure a large, destination casino resort isn’t built in Florida and will allow blackjack at Miami-Dade and Broward County pari-mutuel facilities. While both sides praised the deal, it’s far from done.

“I’m sure they’re going to say, ‘We don’t want any changes,’ and that’s just impossible,” said Brian Ballard, a lobbyist who has represented several gambling interests.

Gambling isn’t an easy subject to navigate through the Florida Legislature. There are 120 House members and 40 senators with widely ranging views on the issue, from those who want no gambling at all to those who want more. There are horse breeders who are concerned that tracks will be allowed to have slot machines and blackjack and stop live racing, and there are areas of the state that want slot machines at their dog and horse tracks and jai-alai frontons that won’t be allowed to under the agreement.

“With everything you add to this compact, you gain or lose votes,” said Republican Rep. Jose Felix Diaz of Miami, who helped Scott negotiate the compact. “You know that you need 61 votes. How you get there is a matter of compromise and creativity.”

Voters in six counties have approved slot machines at dog and horse tracks or jai-alai frontons, but the compact only allows slot machines in one of them – Palm Beach County. Lawmakers representing the other five counties – Brevard, Lee, Gadsden, Hamilton and Washington – will be pressured to make sure they aren’t left out of the deal.

“It’s going to be tough for them to go home and face the voters of their counties who approved a referendum for slots if they aren’t also included if a county like Palm Beach gets it,” said lobbyist Nick Iarossi, who represents a Brevard County dog track as well as horse breeders.

A provision of the compact allows lawmakers the option of letting current pari-mutuel license holders stop live events but continue operating their poker rooms or slot machines, where they’re allowed. That’s a huge concern in Ocala. The horse industry there generates more than 72,000 jobs and has a $6.5 billion economic impact on the state, according to the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

“If there’s nowhere to race thoroughbreds in the state of Florida, it’s going to decimate the breeding industry,” Iarossi said. “It would be killer for Ocala, and really for all the horsemen jobs associated at the tracks in Tampa and South Florida and Miami. Those jobs will all go away.”

The Seminole Tribe is fully expecting lawmakers to seek changes to the deal and will be following the legislative session closely.

“We certainly recognize that there are many more steps to go,” said Seminole Gaming CEO Jim Allen, who said he has already met individually with about 50 lawmakers.

The 60-day legislative session begins Jan. 12.

“There will be some twists and turns as it goes through the process,” said Republican Sen. Rob Bradley of Orange Park, who also helped Scott with the negotiations.

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

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