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Fla. House panel rejects new Indian gaming deal

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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — A special House committee on Thursday rejected the new agreement between Gov. Charlie Crist and the Seminole Tribe to expand gambling at their Florida casinos, leaving questions about the blackjack tables the tribe’s now running.

The tribe says the blackjack and other banked card games are legal. But Rep. Bill Galvano said the tables are being operated illegally.

And it’s questionable whether the two sides can work out a deal.

“This is the first time that the tribe feels it needs to turn its attention from attempting to negotiate a contract to its other alternatives,” said lawyer Barry Richard, who represents the tribe.

That other option is turning to the federal government, which can decide what games the tribes are allowed while the state gets no money. If a compact were still sought, the tribe would expect the state to give it exclusive rights to conduct certain games or geographical exclusivity to run games in exchange for some of the profits.

Thursday’s vote was the latest in a big back-and-forth between Florida and the Tribe. In 2004, voters approved slot machines in Broward and Miami-Dade county horse and dog tracks and jai-alai frontons. The tribe then began negotiating a compact with then-Gov. Jeb Bush, but the issue didn’t go very far, largely because of Bush’s anti-gambling stance.

When Crist took over in January 2007, compact negotiations began anew and progress was made quickly. That November, Crist signed a compact that allowed slot machines and blackjack at the tribe’s seven casinos. But then-House Speaker Marco Rubio and then-Senate President Ken Pruitt successfully challenged the agreement in the state Supreme Court, which ruled Crist didn’t have the authority to compete the deal.

Last year, the Legislature prepared it’s own compact proposal and sent it to Crist to negotiate the final details. The governor signed the second deal in August and hoped lawmakers would approve it in a fall special session. Thursday’s vote essentially killed the agreement.

Among the biggest changes Crist made from the Legislature’s proposal was allowing blackjack and other card games at all seven casinos, where lawmakers only authorized the games at four.

Galvano, R-Bradenton, doesn’t see this as the end of the negotiations.

“I’m still optimistic that we can work something out with the tribe,” he said.

“I agree with Representative Galvano that the decision does not represent a line in the sand,” Gov. Crist said. “We obviously have a long way to go before the end of session, so there is plenty of time for the Florida Legislature to approve a plan that would direct billions of dollars to Florida schools for years to come.”

The deal Crist signed would have provided Florida at least $150 million a year for 20 years, and a predicted $500 million in the final year of the deal. That was more than the $100 million a year minimum under the deal the Legislature proposed.