Florida asks federal judge to shut down blackjack tables

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — The state of Florida escalated its showdown with the Seminole Tribe of Florida on Friday, demanding the tribe immediately shut down blackjack tables at its casinos.

Florida's gambling regulators filed a lawsuit in a Tampa federal court contending that the tribe is now violating both state and federal law. Florida does not have legal jurisdiction over tribal reservations so instead it asking a federal judge to order the tribe to remove the tables.

Five years ago, the state and the tribe reached a deal to allow blackjack and other types of card games to be set up in the tribe's casinos, including at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Tampa and Hollywood. It gave the tribe a significant asset because while dog tracks and horse tracks can offer poker, they can't offer blackjack.

But that deal expired this past summer and a grace period to remove the blackjack tables ended this week.

"As of today, under the existing compact, the Seminole Tribe of Florida is now illegally operating their banked card games," Ken Lawson, the secretary of Florida's Department of Business and Professional Regulation, said in a statement. "In accordance with the existing compact, the state is asking the court to order the tribe to cease operations."

Gov. Rick Scott and top legislators have been trying to negotiate a new deal with the Seminoles, but they have been unable to reach an accord even as the tribe has insisted that there has been "significant progress" in the discussions.

Scott earlier this week would not say if he planned to take the tribe to court. Instead he said he would "do the right thing for our state."

Tribal officials have maintained that even though the deadline has passed they do not have to remove the blackjack tables.

In a pre-emptive move, the Seminoles filed their own federal lawsuit on Monday. The lawsuit asserts the tables can remain because Florida regulators violated the deal with the tribe by allowing South Florida race tracks to offer electronic versions of the card games. It also accuses the state of not negotiating in good faith.

The tribe say Florida officials want more money from the Seminoles "without a proportionate increase in economic benefit to the tribe."

Gary Bitner, a spokesman for the tribe, said the Seminoles believe they can keep the blackjack tables open while their lawsuit is under consideration.

The Seminoles and Florida first reached a deal in 2010 to give the tribe exclusive rights to blackjack and other card games at three Broward County casinos and others in Immokalee and Tampa. That deal guaranteed more than $1 billion in revenue to the state.

Documents obtained last year by The Associated Press showed Scott was willing to extend the compact and let the Seminoles add roulette and craps at its South Florida casinos. Those same documents also show Scott was willing to let the tribe build a casino on its Fort Pierce reservation. The proposed deal would have also likely blocked the construction of any Las Vegas-style casinos in Miami for the next seven years. In exchange, the Republican governor would have gotten $2 billion for the state. The deal was never finalized because top legislators opposed it.

A similar deal is believed to be under consideration again with at least one change: It would not allow the tribe to have a casino in Fort Pierce.