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Interior orders Florida to negotiate Seminole agreement

WASHINGTON - The Interior Department secretary has ordered the Florida governor to negotiate a Class III compact with the Seminole Tribe of Florida within 60 days or the tribe will be allowed to offer slots and other high-level gaming under department regulations.

''My goal is for the State of Florida and the Seminole Tribe to reach an agreement,'' Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne wrote to Florida Gov. Charlie Crist June 22.

Kempthorne noted that Indian Gaming Regulatory Act and the Interior Department's Procedure Regulations encourage states and tribes to negotiate agreements ''that meet both sovereigns' needs.''

But if the state fails to forge a compact under IGRA, the department will allow the tribe to operate Class III gaming under the department's own regulations.

''I am reluctant to impose the federal government's procedures on the parties if there is an opportunity for an agreement. In my view, an agreement negotiated between the two sovereign entities is always preferable to a result imposed by the federal government,'' Kempthorne wrote.

Crist's office did not return a call seeking comment.

George Skibine, director of Interior's Office of Indian Gaming Management, said the Seminoles would not be the first tribe to operate Class III gaming without a state compact, but they would be the first to do so under the secretarial procedures regulations rather than under IGRA.

''They have applied for secretarial procedures under our regulations, but there are other tribes that have gaming under the secretarial procedures issued under the IGRA, the statute, which means they are gaming without an actual compact. There are very few, but the Seminoles would be the first to have procedures under our regulations,'' Skibine said.

The Seminole operate what may be the largest Class II gaming operation in the country, with more than 7,000 bingo-type machines and poker at seven casinos in six locations, including two Hard Rock casinos. Under Class II conditions, people play against each other as opposed to Class III gaming, in which they play against the house with much bigger payoffs.

But even with only Class II gaming, Florida's two tribes - the Seminoles and the Miccosukees, who have one casino - have been reaping huge profits. According to a report on www.casinotimes.com, the tribes' casino revenues were almost $1.6 billion last year, a 21.5 percent increase from the previous year, putting Florida at No. 5 on the list of top earners among tribal casinos.

The tribe has been trying to negotiate a compact with the state since the early 1990s but has been stymied by past governors, opposition and lawsuits.

Last September, Interior set a similar 60-day deadline but it was set aside because Crist, the new governor, was voted in and he specifically requested time to resolve the issue, Seminole spokesman Gary Bitner said.

''Interior, I believe, has held off more for that reason than any other, but obviously they're not going to wait forever. Charlie Crist seems to be more agreeable or more willing to negotiate a compact,'' Bitner said.

In 2004, voters approved a constitutional amendment that allowed a local vote on gaming and as a result, three non-Native casinos opened in 2006 with up to 1,500 slots each.

Under IGRA, tribes are entitled to offer gaming that equals the level of existing gaming in a state. The Seminoles want to convert their 7,000-plus Class II gaming machines into slots, Bitner said.

Tribal and state representatives have been meeting, but the proposed terms of a compact have not been made public. Without a compact, the state may not be entitled to any share of the slots profits.

''I suppose the tribe doesn't have to agree to a compact if it doesn't like the terms the state is offering, but if the terms are favorable, the tribe is likely to give the state a portion of its revenues. The tribe would prefer a compact, because there might be some other benefits - maybe other games, maybe exclusivity in other areas; it could be any number of benefits that would justify having a compact, not to mention just to settle the whole issue,'' Bitner said.

Past opposition to the tribe's gaming expansion has largely abated, he said.

''It seems to have become clear to most people in Florida that this is inevitable and likely to be a good thing,'' Bitner said.