If state OKs real slots, Indians' free ride could end - Tuesday 12th of April 2005

When it comes to the difference between electronic bingo machines vs. slot machines, most people, including gamblers, don't know or care. They couldn't tell Class II vs. Class III, couldn't explain how one pits a player against other players and the other pits a player against the house.

The bottom line seems the same: slide in a bill, push a button, hope you get lucky and something sizable comes out, preferably with many bells and whistles.

Las Vegas has slot machines. The local Indian casinos have electronic bingo machines.

During the next three weeks, the Legislature will decide what type of machines will be allowed in four Broward County pari-mutuel facilities.

The Senate bill calls for Vegas-style slot machines, which the industry wants and voters clearly approved. The House bill, deferring to Gov. Jeb Bush, calls for bingo machines. Either machine will be mandated to pay gamblers 85-93 percent of the money taken in.

So what's the difference?

The biggest is what it means for the Seminole and Miccosukee casinos.

By approving full-fledged slot machines at the pari-mutuels, the state could maneuver its way into getting a share of Indian casino profits. Since the Indian casinos already exist, and since the tribes are open to negotiating contracts in exchange for certain benefits, this seems logical and desirable.

But Bush and some legislators prefer the nonsensical status quo, in which the Indians keep everything for themselves and are not regulated by the state.

This is how the upcoming slots vs. bingo machine showdown should really be framed.

If the House version prevails, and the new casinos are limited to electronic bingo machines, the Indian tribes will likely continue enjoying a free ride on their gambling operations.

If the Senate version prevails, and true Vegas slots are allowed, it will spur a chain-reaction that could end with the Indians paying a portion of their gambling proceeds to the state.

How could anyone be opposed to that?

Inexplicably, the governor is.

So are other legislators whose aversion to gambling is so deep they're willing to forego logic for morality.

Unlike governors in other states, Florida's chief executives have never had an interest in negotiating gambling contracts with Indian tribes. Bush has remained steadfast in his opposition through his two terms.

Just look where it's gotten us. Even without a contract, the Seminoles and Miccosukees are allowed by federal law to offer forms of gambling already legal in the state. Their casinos with Class II electronic bingo machines and poker are booming. None of the profit goes to the state.

The existence of Indian casinos is a big reason why Florida voters passed the slots amendment last November and why Broward voters approved slots at pari-mutuels last month.

With all the perceived social costs of casino-style gambling already here, the voters wisely decided it was time for the state to get into the action.

Voters wanted taxed and regulated slot machines at pari-mutuel facilities. But some also wanted to force the state's hand in finally coming to a deal with the Indians.

Which is where we are now.

With slot machines approved by voters, the Indian tribes say that they are entitled to Class III slots no matter what the Legislature decides to give the pari-mutuels. They also argue they are entitled to all Class III gambling, including table games like blackjack and craps.

Whether the federal and Indian gaming authorities that regulate Indian casinos concur is another matter, but the state is on a timetable to negotiate in good faith with the tribes.

If Bush and the state remain stubborn, the Indians could win the right to have slots and table games without a compact. The state would be powerless to stop them.

A high-stakes poker game is now under way and Bush better take a seat at the table before the state loses big.

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