Seminole Tribe resuming gambling payments to State of Florida

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Amid a celebrity-fueled launch of new casino games this week, the Seminole Tribe intends to resume making payments to the state as part of a 30-year deal that included giving the tribe control over sports betting.

Jim Allen, CEO of Seminole Gaming and chairman of Hard Rock International, told The News Service on Friday that the tribe expects to pay the state at least $650 million over the next year as part of the 2021 deal, known as a compact.

"The compact is now back in full force, and the tribe is abiding with the full terms of the compact," Allen, speaking from Tampa, said. "It’s certainly our intention to comply with the compact in our relationship with the state. Obviously, we’re just launching all this stuff today."

Allen did not specify when the tribe would begin making payments or how much the first payment would be, saying they would be made pursuant to the terms of the compact.

Under the three-decade deal, signed by Gov. Ron DeSantis and Seminole Tribe of Florida Chairman Marcellus Osceola Jr. and ratified by the Legislature, the Seminoles agreed to pay Florida about $20 billion, including $2.5 billion over the first five years of the agreement. The amount would dip by $50 million a year if sports betting — which has been the subject of state and federal court fights — isn’t in effect, essentially guaranteeing the state an annual minimum payment of $450 million.

The deal also authorized the Seminoles to offer craps and roulette at their casinos and add three casinos on tribal property in Broward County. It also allowed pari-mutuels to contract with the Seminoles and share revenue from sports betting.

Allen said Friday the tribe has tried to work with all of the state’s 32 pari-mutuel operators.

"We're actively working with 16 of them. I believe we just launched five of them today," he said.

The tribe’s expansion of gambling was on hold for more than two years amid the legal battles over part of the deal that allows gamblers to place mobile sports wagers anywhere in the state, with bets handled by computer servers on tribal property. The deal said bets "using a mobile app or other electronic device, shall be deemed to be exclusively conducted by the tribe."

Two pari-mutuel companies have argued the sports-betting plan violated a federal law and a 2018 state constitutional amendment because it would allow people to place wagers while off tribal property.

The Seminoles, however, began moving forward after the U.S. Supreme Court in October refused to block sports betting while a broader legal battle plays out.

The tribe on Nov. 7 began accepting mobile sports bets from a limited number of gamblers and went statewide this week. The Seminoles launched the new table games and sports books with blowouts at their South Florida facilities on Thursday and the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Tampa on Friday. Musical performers including Gloria and Emilio Estefan, Jon Bon Jovi and Bruno Mars and sports figures such as Mike Tyson, Dwyane Wade and Hulk Hogan were among the celebrities attending the events.

The rollout of the new games kicked off at the Seminole Classic Casino in Hollywood.

The ceremony was "truly beautiful," Allen said, "because it’s obviously the birthplace of Native American gaming. … So I think to be in that building where it all started, it was just a perfect way to launch."

The casino opened as the country’s first large-stakes bingo hall in 1979, before expanding into other games, according to the tribe’s website.

The court battles, however, aren’t over. The pari-mutuel companies West Flagler Associates and Bonita-Fort Myers Corp. are expected to ask the U.S. Supreme Court to review an appellate-court ruling that upheld a U.S. Department of the Interior decision to allow the compact to move forward. The Department of the Interior oversees gambling on tribal land.

Also, lawyers for the pari-mutuel companies have asked the Florida Supreme Court to block the sports-betting provision in the compact. They argue that it violates a constitutional amendment requiring voter approval of casino gambling in the state.

In a friend-of-the-court brief filed Friday, the tribe’s lawyers said the sports-betting provision does not violate the amendment because the compact says bets made on mobile devices anywhere in the state are deemed to take place on tribal lands.

The 2018 amendment, known as Amendment 3, also preserved the state’s ability to negotiate and carry out gambling compacts with tribes, the Seminoles’ lawyers wrote in the 33-page brief.

"Thus, under the plain language of Amendment 3, the Legislature was well within its authority to deem the placement of the online sports betting wagers, where aspects of each transaction occur both on and off tribal lands, to occur exclusively where accepted on tribal lands as a matter of law," the tribe’s attorneys wrote.

The Seminoles first entered into a compact with then-Gov. Charlie Crist in 2007. But Republican legislators challenged the deal in court, arguing that it required ratification by lawmakers. The Florida Supreme Court sided with the Legislature, resulting in a revised compact that allowed the Seminoles to operate slot machines, which were already permitted at pari-mutuel facilities in Miami-Dade and Broward counties, and gave the tribe "exclusive" rights to conduct banked card games such as blackjack and baccarat.

But the Seminoles in 2019 halted payments to the state of more than $350 million a year because of a drawn-out dispute over controversial "designated player" card games offered at many pari-mutuels. The tribe ceased the annual payments after a series of court rulings.