PENSACOLA, Fla. (AP) — At a rural crossroads in northwest Florida, the state may encounter a tough choice in its ongoing debate over the future of gambling.
It's here — amid mobile homes, cow pastures and cotton fields near the Alabama-Florida line — that a small, Alabama-based Indian tribe wants to expand its gambling operations into the Sunshine State.
Rebuffed so far by Gov. Rick Scott, the Poarch Creek Band of Indians is suggesting it might adopt a hardball negotiating stance: Let us offer gambling in a few Florida locations, or we could consider growing and selling marijuana on our property.
The prospect of selling pot is just one "what if" scenario that tribal leaders say is possible. But what the Poarch want now is for Scott and the Republican-controlled Legislature to take them seriously and approve a compact with the tribe that would allow a casino.
"We are entitled to negotiate a compact with the state," said Stephanie Bryan, chairwoman of the Poarch tribal council. "We have 642 tribal members living throughout the state of Florida. We are asking Gov. Scott to acknowledge we are a federally recognized tribe."
The tribe stakes its claim to negotiate a far-reaching gambling deal on a one-acre tract of land it owns in Escambia County. It's just a few miles from a casino operated by the tribe near the state line in Atmore, Alabama. Tribal officials contend that the land has been in tribal ownership long enough to trigger rights guaranteed by federal law.
Rejecting a deal with the tribe could spark a lawsuit. It could also prompt the tribe to consider its options, such as whether to sell marijuana on its Florida property. The U.S. Department of Justice in December said tribes could grow and sell marijuana on their lands, as long as they follow the same federal conditions laid out for states that have legalized the drug.
So far, many tribes say they're inclined to avoid marijuana sales, amid concerns over alcoholism, poverty, crime and joblessness on tribal lands.
Bryan stressed that any decision of that magnitude would need tribal council approval. She said what the tribe wants is a "seat at the table" as the debate over gambling continues.
"We consider ourselves good neighbors, good natives," Bryan said.
Recently the tribe started building a warehouse on the land, but so far the actions have garnered a shrug from the Scott administration. Although the governor's office met twice with tribal officials last year, a spokesman for Scott said recently the governor will not negotiate with the tribe.
Scott's legal office last fall wrote to Bryan, saying it was "premature" to begin negotiations and that the tribe needs additional recognition from federal officials.
The tribe's push for a compact comes during a potentially pivotal moment in the state's ongoing gambling debate. Key parts of a major deal with the Seminole Tribe of Florida — approved five years ago — expire later this year. There's no clear indication if Scott or state legislators will let the deal lapse or negotiate anything further. The Seminoles own six casinos in Florida, including the high-profile and highly profitable Hard Rock Casinos in South Florida and Tampa.
Poarch Band officials assert that negotiating a compact with them won't jeopardize any money earned from the Seminoles.
While they contend they have a right to offer Las Vegas-styled slot machines and table games like blackjack, they have floated a deal called the "I-10 consolidation plan" instead.
The tribe wants to operate bingo-styled slot machines in pari-mutuels in Jacksonville, Pensacola and in a small town just outside Tallahassee, all near Interstate 10. In exchange, the tribe says it will return six permits it has in hand for other locations. A description of the plan asserts the state would earn nearly $2 billion over the next 10 years.
One of the tribe's Florida neighbors, Pam Pagel, lives in a small house near the warehouse under construction. So far she said she isn't concerned about what may happen.
"I don't think it will amount to much," she said. "They go back and forth from saying it will be a warehouse to saying it will be a gaming room."
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