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Crist acknowledges gaming deal has little chance

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) – Gov. Charlie Crist acknowledges there’s little chance lawmakers will approve a deal to expand Seminole Indian gaming during a special legislative session this month.

The ever-optimistic governor, though, said Dec. 24 that he included $135 million from the gaming compact in his deficit reduction plan for the special session “because hope springs eternal.”

Legislative leaders plan to call lawmakers into session beginning Jan. 5 to deal with an expected $2.3 billion budget deficit, but they’ve said they don’t want to take up the Indian gaming issue until the regular session that begins in March.

Crist on Tuesday submitted his recommendations to the Legislature, including a proposal to approve the Seminole compact.

The state has collected and set aside more than $70 million from the compact Crist already has signed. It cannot be used, though, until the Legislature approves the deal, and there’s strong opposition on moral and political grounds.

“Ratifying the compact I think helps Floridians and they need the help,” Crist said. “The concern I have is that if the state doesn’t do it the federal government may do it, anyway, and then Florida taxpayers could be left out in the cold.”

The Florida Supreme Court in July blocked the compact, ruling it needed approval from the Legislature.

The compact gives the tribe exclusive rights to operate blackjack and other card games at its Florida casinos with a guarantee the state won’t expand non-tribal Las Vegas style slot machines beyond Miami-Dade and Broward counties, the only places they now are allowed.

In return, the tribe will pay the state at least $375 million over the first three years and at least $100 million annually after that.

The National Indian Gaming Commission also has the power to approve the Seminoles’ card games regardless of what the state does, but so far it has not acted.

The deal is opposed by gaming opponents as well as horse and dog tracks and jai alai frontons that compete with the tribe’s casinos.

Senate President Jeff Atwater, R-North Palm Beach, and House Speaker Ray Sansom, R-Destin, want to give all interests a chance to be heard on the issue and there won’t be enough time during a two-week special session that’s focused on budget cuts and other deficit reductions.

The Seminoles, meanwhile, have introduced the new card games at their casinos in Hollywood, Tampa and Immokolee. Attorney General Bill McCollum has asked the federal government to prosecute the tribe for doing so as he has no jurisdiction over tribal property.

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