Blackjack fight latest front in Fla. gambling saga

By: AP
By: AP

MIAMI (AP) -- Visitors to Florida might have a tough time telling whether it's an anything-goes playground or the tip of the Bible Belt.

In some spots, you can sunbathe topless, bar-hop around the clock or carry a drink down the street in full public view.

Yet until this summer, you couldn't legally play a hand of blackjack - a game allowed in 28 other states, most of them much less dependent on the money blown by tourists.

Gambling's strange history in Florida, the birthplace of the Indian casino, has gotten even weirder in the past year. Table games are back to being illegal, after briefly being OK, but there's at least one place you can still play.

For now.

It started last November, when Gov. Charlie Crist struck a compact with the Seminole Indians to allow Las Vegas-style slots, blackjack and baccarat at tribal casinos.

Since then, other leaders in state government have done just about everything possible to get that deal undone. Conservatives took the issue to the Florida Supreme Court, which ruled in July that the governor didn't have the legal authority to make an agreement with the tribe.

But the games continue at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in Hollywood, Fla., because the tribe rushed to open them weeks before the court ruled.

Florida can't make the tribe stop, because the state has no authority on sovereign American Indian land. So the attorney general is petitioning the National Indian Gaming Commission to take what may be an unprecedented step - pulling gaming rights after the federal government has approved them.

Legalized Indian gaming began in this country at a Seminole bingo hall in Hollywood that opened in 1979 and is still operating. The state fought the tribe then, too, and most residents didn't approve of allowing casinos to spread over the years. Three ambitious proposals to authorize them across the state in 1978, 1986 and 1994 failed, drawing opposition from Christian conservatives, Walt Disney World, the gambling day-cruise industry and even animal-rights groups opposed to horse and dog racing.

"You're going to have the Disney people against it, because they don't want gambling associated with Florida because Disney is associated with Florida, and you're going to have Seminoles against it because they don't want any competition," said David G. Schwartz, director of the Center for Gaming Research at UNLV.

"It's what economists call a 'Baptist and bootlegger coalition.'"

Before the governor and tribe struck the recent compact, Florida was one of only five places in the country that allowed Indian casinos but didn't let them deal blackjack.

"These are the arguments - crime, drug use, prostitution, four horsemen of the apocalypse," said outgoing Sen. Steve Geller, a South Florida Democrat and lawyer who has for years been the Legislature's strongest casino supporter. Because of term limits, the 2008 legislative session was his last.

In 2004 voters finally approved Las Vegas-style slot machines. Though it was modest - applicable only to Broward and Miami-Dade horse and dog tracks and jai-alai facilities - the statewide measure barely got through, passing with just 50.8 percent of the vote.

It gave gambling opponents another problem. Because federal law provides Indians the right to run the same games available elsewhere in a state, it opened the door for the Seminoles to install the slot machines they were lobbying more than a decade to get.

But they needed a compact with the state, and Gov. Jeb Bush refused to make one, citing the failed referenda as proof the public didn't want more gambling. The federal government threatened to approve the games on its own if the state wouldn't negotiate in good faith, cutting Florida off from any revenue share.

By entering a compact with the Seminoles that included blackjack, Crist was trying to guarantee Florida at least $100 million annually for 25 years. But giving the tribe exclusive rights to blackjack, rather than simply allowing more slots, meant more money and much more controversy.

Now, no one is happy. The commercial gaming industry says it cannot compete against the Seminoles because it isn't allowed to offer blackjack and must pay a 50 percent tax on its income from slots. Lawmakers say the compact needed their approval to be valid, and Attorney General Bill McCollum is anxious about card games spreading to other Seminole casinos in the state.

The federal gaming commission did not return repeated calls from The Associated Press.

McCollum said the issue transcends the revenue and jobs Seminole gaming would provide.

"We are a tourist state with a lot of young people visiting," McCollum said. "We've got Disney World, we've got lots of other tourist attractions, and expanding Indian gambling would be a bad idea in my opinion."

Seminole spokesman Gary Bitner said Floridians are getting more at ease with gambling, as evidenced by the South Florida slots vote. Until state officials catch up, he said, Florida will continue to lose visitors and even in-state gamblers to not-too-far-away destinations like Mississippi and the Bahamas, which offer full-service gaming.

"We're talking about quick hops, basically, for people to go play whatever they want," Bitner said. "I think that over time that has had the effect of making people in the state of Florida feel more comfortable."

Bitner paused, then took a second to clarify.

"That's the public we're talking about," he said. "Not neccessarily elected officials."

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On the Net:

Indian Gaming Commission: http://www.nigc.gov

Seminole Tribe: http://www.seminoletribe.com

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