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Seminoles sign state gaming compact.

By Gale Courey Toensing -- Today staff

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - Seminole Tribal Chairman Mitchell Cypress and Florida Gov. Charlie Crist have signed a 25-year gaming compact that will significantly expand the tribe's casino operations and pour billions of dollars into the state's coffers.

The deal was sealed Nov. 14, one day before a federally imposed deadline would have allowed the tribe to operate slot machines on tribal lands without any revenue-sharing with the state.

The deal includes guaranteed payments from the Seminoles to the state while the tribe wins the exclusive right to operate slot machines and card games at its seven casinos in Florida, including its two Hard Rock hotels and casinos in Tampa and Hollywood, Fla., while barring competing casinos from opening anywhere in the state outside of south Florida's Broward and Miami-Dade counties.

Tribal council members and the governor announced and signed the agreement at a joint news conference in Tallahassee.

Cypress thanked the governor, his staff, the tribal council, the tribal staff and the tribe's attorneys by name.

''I just wanted to go ahead and thank God for watching over the Seminole people and bringing the people and the state together to provide education for the Seminole Tribe of Florida, and also secure the future of our young generation and our grandchildren and Seminole tribal people. Again, Charlie, I thank you. You're the first governor who ever listened to what we wanted to do. We wanted to do a share of our income and I think it's happened today. This is a good day for everybody,'' Cypress said.

Crist said he was honored and grateful for the tribe's negotiations.

''Clearly, this is a historic day for the state of Florida and the Seminole Nation. Since Florida became a state in 1845, the people of Florida and the people of the Seminole Tribe have had a wonderful relationship. They've lived together, sometimes peacefully, sometimes not so peacefully, right?'' Crist said, reaching out to pat Cypress's shoulder.

Crist also commented on the practical aspects of signing the compact.

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''The federal government has told us that without a compact, tomorrow they would allow the tribe to do most of the things that are in the compact today. So I feel it's only responsible of me as the governor of Florida to protect the people of Florida that they get the revenues that will be generated by this compact and the relationship that I hope will end up helping education and pay teachers more,'' Crist said.

Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne also lauded the agreement, which, he said in a prepared statement, ''brings an end to a decade of dispute and litigation [and] will serve the interests of both the state and the tribe.''

The agreement immediately drew criticism and a promise to oppose the compact from some state legislators in Crist's own Republican party, Forbes magazine online reported. The state House contends that the Legislature must ratify any agreement with the Seminoles - a position Crist rejected.

''There is no provision in our constitution for ratification of this compact, and it is not our intention that the Legislature will ratify it,'' said Crist's chief of staff, George LeMieux, according to Forbes magazine online.

The federal government is required to sign off on the compact. Kempthorne's deadline for approving the compact is Dec. 28. The agreement will become effective when notice of its approval is published in the Federal Register.

As soon as the federal government approves the contract, the tribe will pay the state of Florida $50 million. After that, the state will get guaranteed minimum annual payments of $100 million. Starting in the third year of operation, the state will receive between 10 and 25 percent of the gaming revenue, based on how much money the tribe takes in. The Legislature will appropriate the money, but Crist recommended that 95 percent be earmarked for education and the remaining 5 percent go to local governments impacted by the increased activity at the Seminole casinos.

The compact allows the Seminole Tribe to operate Class III slot machines and banked card games, such as black jack and baccarat, at its seven existing facilities on tribal lands in Immokalee, Big Cypress, Brighton, Hillsborough and three locations in Broward County.

Additionally, the tribe will be allowed to hold six no-limit poker tournaments each year, with 70 percent of the revenue going to charitable organizations.

The compact includes an exclusivity component in which the state would forfeit its share of the tribe's revenue if it allowed slots and other gaming on nontribal lands outside of Broward and Miami-Dade counties, where residents approved such gaming in 2004.

The agreement also requires the tribe to develop a compulsive gambling prevention program and a wide range of regulatory controls, including an annual independent financial audit; legal mechanisms for consumer protection; compliance with national gaming standards, state building codes and inspections; and monitoring of games, financial records and internal procedures. The tribe will also make provisions for smoke-free gaming and limit admission to patrons age 21 and older.

The tribal/state compact will significantly expand the Seminoles' already vast business empire. Last March, the tribe finalized its $965 million purchase of Hard Rock International - a network of Hard Rock cafes and hotels in 46 countries.