High stakes gambling battle headed to Florida Capitol

Guitar-shaped hotel or not, state's gambling compact far from done deal

HOLLYWOOD, Fla. – Florida Gov. Rick Scott, flanked by Seminole Chief Jim Billie and other tribal leaders, was in Hollywood Monday to unveil a $1.8 billion hotel plan for the Seminole Hard Rock Casino, that included a visually stunning 36-story guitar-shaped hotel and $100 million worth of swimming pools.

Scott and the Seminoles said at a press conference that the development hinged on passage of their negotiated gambling compact that would allow roulette and craps tables at the tribe's casinos for the first time and generate $3 billion in revenue for the state in the first seven years alone.

"We negotiated a compact that is fair and is good for the citizens of our state," Scott said. "Now it's up to the House and Senate to make their decision."

One major problem, though, is that the Legislature almost surely will not be able to act on the proposed compact this year. The legislative session ends on March 11, which will make it next to impossible for the lawmakers to fashion a revised version of the deal.

"There just isn't enough time," former state Sen. Steve Geller, a longtime authority on gaming law in Florida, said.

The compact proposal is a one-sided affair that overly benefits the Seminoles while neglecting the state's longstanding parimutuels, said Dan Adkins, vice president of Mardi Gras Casino. Adkins said Monday's press conference was "smoke and mirrors," using the $1.8 billion Hard Rock development – which he said will almost surely be built with or without the new compact – as "bait."

While the Seminoles would basically be getting full Las Vegas-style gaming out of the deal, the parimutuels could only hope to get the right to use blackjack tables with a $15 bet limit out of the new compact, something Adkins said was worthless.

"A $15 bet limit? I don't want it," Adkins said. "I couldn't pay to put in an operation. People who want to play blackjack, they want to play blackjack."

Adkins also said that while the tribe's effective tax rate would be 15 percent, the parimutuels would pay an effective 45 percent tax rate. And it would do nothing to alleviate the parimutuels' largest burden – the forced continuation of live greyhound and horse races, that in many cases are unprofitable.

"There is no interest in greyhound racing anymore, yet we're forced under legislation to operate that, so I have an expense that the tribe doesn't have," Adkins said. "We want the elimination, or the option, for live racing so we don't have to do it if it's not productive. We want blackjack with a competitive limit, say $100. And we need to have a competitive tax rate. We need to have a tax rate which is closer to the 15 percent rate of the tribe."

Right now, the parimutuel industry is heavily lobbying lawmakers to craft a version of the compact that evens the playing field a bit. If a compact more balanced toward the commercial operators is created then it would get kicked back to Scott and the Seminoles for their approval – or not.

"We have to protect our interests and that is what we are doing," Adkins said. "If the tribe and the governor sit down and they can accept that offer this issue is put behind us and we'll move ahead. If not, then there's a lot of litigation ahead of us."

That includes existing massive lawsuits filed by the state against the tribe and vice versa. But Adkins agrees that anything getting done during this legislative session is unlikely.

"If I was a betting man, I'd say there's a very slim chance this deal gets approved," he said.