Fla. House passes Indian gaming bill, sends to governor

— A gaming deal that will bring more than $1 billion to state coffers over the next five years and legitimize gambling at seven Seminole Indian casinos is on its way to the governor following a vote Monday by the Florida House.

By 74-39 vote, the House capped off more than 20 years of talks by approving a compact unveiled last week that allows the tribe to exclusively offer banked cards games such as blackjack at Immokalee and four other Seminole casinos and offer Las Vegas-style slot machines in all of its venues.

Non-Indian pari-mutuels would see no-limit poker, extended hours and the hope of further concessions down the road.

“(This compact) is unprecedented,” Rep. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, told members before the vote. “… I challenge you to look around the nation and see where a deal such as this has been worked out.”

Galvano said the plan gives the state more authority to chart its gambling future. Among the concessions made by the tribe is a provision that it will cease operating banked card games if the governor and legislature do not extend the five-year exclusivity clause.

“You took something that was stuck in the ditch and put Florida back in the driver’s seat,” Galvano said.

In exchange for exclusivity, the tribe agrees to immediately free up $250 million already paid to the state and a guaranteed minimum payment of $1 billion dollars over 5 years. Legislative backers, however, say the state’s take is more likely to exceed $1.3 billion.

The agreement requires the tribe to pay $150 million per year for the first two years and bumps up guaranteed payments to $234 million in year 5. The state is also entitled to a percentage of the net revenue over and above the minimum.

Rep. David Rivera, R-Miami, and Rep. Tom Grady, R-Naples, and Rep. Matt Hudson, R-Naples all voted in favor of the bill. During debate, Hudson told members he supported the renewed compact because it allows banked card games to stay in Immokalee.

“Even if projections are only half true, that is 1,000 jobs created for the people I represent,” Hudson said.

Earlier versions had called on the tribe to pull the games, which tribal leaders said would have resulted in job losses to the economically strapped region.

“The people are facing foreclosure and facing 14 percent unemployment,” Hudson added. “By golly, they expect us to do the right thing.”

Gov. Charlie Crist applauded the move and has said he will quickly sign the measure, which immediately frees up more than $400 million in Seminole funds that lawmakers can spend in their next budget.

“I look forward to signing this legislation that secures the immediate use of hundreds of millions of dollars that will directly benefit the people of Florida, as well as $1.2 billion during the compact’s first five years,” Crist said in a statement. “This compact benefits both the tribe and our entire state by improving the quality of life for all Floridians.”

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