Seminole Tribe Close to a Gambling Deal in Fla.

The Seminole Tribe and the state of Florida are close to an agreement that would allow the tribe to expand gambling at its seven casinos. The deal would generate much-needed revenue for the state, but there's still significant opposition from gambling opponents in the legislature.

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Not too long ago, the idea would have seemed laughable. The Seminole Tribe of Florida, once known for air boat rides and alligator wrestling, buying the Hard Rock Cafe chain of restaurants and hotels for nearly a billion dollars. But that happened recently. Casinos run by Indian tribes began in the late 1970s and today, it's a multibillion-dollar industry - more than 400 casinos run by more than 200 tribes.

NPR's Greg Allen reports that the tribe that started it - the Seminole - hope they get state approval to turn their bingo halls in Florida into Las Vegas-style casinos.

GREG ALLEN: Calling the Seminole Hard Rock Casino and Hotel in Hollywood a glorified bingo hall is actually more than a little misleading. Inside it has all the glitz, shine and sensory overload of a casino in Las Vegas or Atlantic City.

Mr. MAX OSCEOLA (Member, Seminole Tribal Council): When I was a young boy, I used to play out here. And it used to be just white sand, and then, we've turned white sand into gold.

ALLEN: If anyone can be called the father of Indian gaming, it might be Max Osceola. He was an employee with the Bureau of Indian Affairs in 1979 when he approved a request by his tribe - the Seminoles - to open a high-stakes bingo hall on the reservation in Hollywood, Florida.

Now Osceola is a member of the Seminole Tribal Council and one of those in charge of the tribe's seven casinos in Florida. At the Seminole's Hard Rock Casino, a large part of the floor is dominated by slot machines - lots and lots of slots.

(Soundbite of a slot machine)

Mr. OSCEOLA: You can see this machine in Las Vegas. It's all Triple Lucky Sevens.

ALLEN: But unlike the machines in Vegas, this isn't a true slot machine, what they call a Class III slot in the trade. It's really an electronic bingo game. Osceola points to the top of the screen where there's a bingo card.

Mr. OSCEOLA: So in Las Vegas you wouldn't see this line. There would be no line here.

ALLEN: The line at the top, which is the bingo card...

Mr. OSCEOLA: Right, which is the bingo card. So we call this a technical A device. It's fast bingo. It's quick bingo.

ALLEN: The Seminoles hope soon to trade in their electronic bingo games for Class III slots and maybe even begin offering table games, like blackjack and baccarat.

Class III gaming is something the Seminoles have been talking about for years in Florida - 17 years, in fact. They talked to former governors Lawton Chiles and Jeb Bush about it with no luck. But recently, their luck changed. Voters in Broward County, where the Seminole's Hollywood Casino is located, approved a ballot measure that allows Class III slots at racetracks.

Federal law guarantees Indians the right to conduct whatever gambling is allowed in the state, and the Interior Department ordered Florida to negotiate an agreement with the Seminoles.

When he ran for office, the current governor, Republican Charlie Crist, said he opposed expanding gambling in the Sunshine State. But Crist now has changed his mind, parted by the Feds and the realities, he says, of coping with the $ 1-billion budget deficit.

Governor CHARLIE CRIST (Republican, Florida): There are a lot many things. I dislike as much as gambling but there is one, and that's increase taxes. So I'm not willing to do that. So I'm trying to remain open-minded about other opportunities.

State Senator STEVE GELLER (Democrat, Florida): You could easily put together a deal here to get a billion dollars in gambling revenue.

ALLEN: Steve Geller is a Democrat from Hollywood and the minority leader in the state Senate. Like the governor, he believes now may be the time to expand gambling in Florida.

State Senator GELLER: If I'm going to have to choose between slashing education funding or cutting off aid to the medically needing, knowing that people will die if we do that, I'm prepared to opt for this new source of revenue.

ALLEN: If and when his negotiators work out an agreement with the Seminoles, Governor Crist says he'll submit the plan to the state legislature. But his prospects there are uncertain. Many top Republicans in the legislature oppose expanding gambling. One of them, House Speaker Marco Rubio grew up in Las Vegas, and he says he doesn't know of a single community where gambling has been a positive.

State Representative MARCO RUBIO (House Speaker, Florida House of Representatives): Once the government starts depending on the revenues from gaming, the only incentive is to grow it. And, you know, one thing is when you're dependent on business is growing, another thing is when one of your largest sources of revenue in the state becomes something that you know is bad for people to do.

ALLEN: Rubio concedes that Florida will most likely have to approve Class III slot machines for the Seminole casinos, but he'll oppose anything further, which means, if Governor Crist wants to use gambling revenue to close Florida's billion-dollar budget shortfall, he'll first have to convince some key members of his own party.

Greg Allen, NPR News, Miami.

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