Wheel of Misfortune
Over Rosh Hashanah dinner, Charlie Crist and Steve Geller prayed over a table spread with wine, bread, apples, and honey.
May the new year be a sweet year for us...
How very Crist-like. The Republican governor dining at a Democratic senator's house. The Christian celebrating a Jewish holiday. The St. Petersburg-based politician spending his time in politically unfriendly Broward County.
Jeb Bush wouldn't have been caught dead at Geller's house. Then again, Geller didn't recruit Bush into student government at Florida State University 30 years ago. He recruited Crist, a man with whom he's broken bread many times.
This time, though, the notoriously thin governor seemed especially hungry. Or perhaps he just has a yen for gefilte fish.
"The governor never eats more than three ounces of food," Geller says. "But he ate a lot this time. He left a message the next day saying he's not going to eat again [for] three days, which I believe, because I've never seen him eat that much."
Geller, however, was a lot more concerned about what Crist was swallowing at the negotiating table. The senator, who is tightly aligned with the gambling industry, is concerned that the governor is on course to destroy Broward County's four pari-mutuels, or "racinos."
I could follow Geller's diplomatic line, but I'm going to go ahead and say what he won't: It's time for the governor to show some balls in his dealings with the Seminole Tribe.
Right now, Crist is involved in high-stakes negotiations with the Seminoles to expand gambling at reservation casinos, including the Hard Rock in Hollywood.
The working draft of the compact will give the Indians a state monopoly on table games like blackjack and baccarat in its seven Florida casinos. And that will decimate the Broward racinos, which already pay an outrageous tax rate while the Seminoles skate.
I haven't agreed much with Geller in the past. I've slammed him for his coziness with the gambling industry. But on the Seminole compact, he's right on the money.
The governor needs to shed his nice-guy shtick and play a cutthroat game. He needs to call the tribe's bluff.
Before we get into why Crist should ace out the wealthy tribe, let's take a look at the action so far. The game began in 2004, when Broward voters approved Las Vegas-style slots for the four pari-mutuels. Federal law generally allows Indian tribes to offer all the games that are legal in the states in which they operate, so the Seminoles took steps to stock the new machines as well.
The law, however, requires that the tribe sign a compact with the governor to seal the deal. Jeb took a hard line against gambling; once he left office and Crist entered the game, the Seminoles raised the stakes.
They are demanding not only the Vegas-style slots but also the table games, which are currently illegal in the state. In return, the tribe is offering the state about $100 million a year from its seven casinos.
That may sound like a lot, but it's little more than an ante. Consider, for instance, that the three pari-mutuels currently offering slots in Broward together are coughing up about $110 million a year — without the table games.
On top of that, the pari-mutuels, which are part of Florida and can be regulated, are already being taxed into oblivion — at an effective 62 percent tax rate — so they can't really flourish.
With the deck already stacked, giving the Seminoles a further advantage is ludicrous.
Asked what would happen if the current compact were ratified, Dan Adkins, CEO of one of those pari-mutuels, told me, "I guarantee you we're all out of business."
Adkins, who runs Mardi Gras Gaming (formerly the Hollywood Dog Track), may be overstating things a bit, but the racinos would be hit hard. And no matter what you may think of gambling, destroying those venues would be bad business.
I've been skeptical about Broward's seemingly manifest gambling destiny in the past. But the people spoke in 2004. They want a gambling mecca here. And since taxpayers aren't going to get much more than squat from the Seminoles, you have to back the pari-mutuels in this race, especially if you live in racino-rich Broward.
If the pari-mutuels get the table games, they'll produce a hell of a lot more revenue than $100 million a year. Geller predicts hundreds of millions of dollars.
"What the Indians have on the table in exchange for what they want is nothing," Adkins says. "It's a mere pittance. Why talk about $100 million when you can package this thing with the pari-mutuels and really bring a windfall for the state?"
But this isn't all about money. It's just not fair — or American — to hand out monopolies. That's what Crist is doing with the proposed compact. Right now, though, he's facing a promise from House Speaker Marco Rubio to fight the addition of the table games. Carrying the anti-gambling torch for Jeb, he's taken the right stance for the wrong reason.
That leaves Crist with only one good option: He needs to take the table games out of the deal with the Seminoles and negotiate a fair fee for allowing the slot machines only.
If the tribe balks and tries to install the machines without a compact, let it try its luck in a court case with the state that could play out for years. The Seminoles don't want that. A legal fight with Florida could complicate matters as the Seminoles branch out across the country and world with their recently purchased Hard Rock empire.
From there, you find the best way to get the table games into the Broward pari-mutuels and Seminole casinos. It's the next logical step, and it probably begins with a referendum. Hell, even Rubio should agree that the people ought to make that decision.
Yet public opinion right now seems tilted toward rushing into a deal with the Seminoles and giving them everything they want. Adkins blames it on "scare tactics" spread by the tribe's high-powered lawyers, but that's no excuse for the local media.
The Sun-Sentinel, for instance, backs giving away the store to the tribe, and fast. Two weeks ago, it decried Rubio's promise that the Legislature wouldn't ratify a move by Crist to give the Seminoles the table games.
The title of the September 12 editorial says it all: "Time to get deal done with Tribe." The newspaper endorsed the proposed compact, arguing that the tribe will likely get the slots and table games whether we like it or not. It failed to mention that a federal appeals court ruled in favor of the State of Texas in a similar case last month.
One doesn't want to read too deeply into these things, especially to jump to a conclusion that the huge amount of advertising dollars the tribe gives the Sun-Sentinel for weekend inserts has anything to do with the paper's point of view. No, that would be totally unfair, so I won't even mention it.
The truth is that reasonable people can disagree on the issue, because the fear that taxpayers will lose out on all Seminole revenue is not ungrounded, even though it's far from a given.
And that's where Crist is negotiating from right now: from fear rather than power.
The good news is that Crist clearly wants to do the right thing. During that Rosh Hashanah dinner, Geller refrained from too much gambling talk. But when the issue came up, the senator said, "Governor, I still want to do whatever will generate the most tax dollars for the state."
"That's my goal too," the governor responded, according to Geller. "Let's figure out what will generate the most tax dollars and go forward."
In the long run, that isn't going to be accomplished by kowtowing to the Seminoles. The way to a sweet new year will come by rolling the dice. And by playing this game to win.
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