Miami Herald: New Miccosukee leader vows to bring fresh economic opportunities

Jan 6, 2010

The Miami Herald published this article on January 6, 2009.

BY MICHAEL VASQUEZ
mrvasquez@MiamiHerald.com

In front of a gathered crowd that included both fellow tribal members and Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, the Miccosukee Tribe of Indians on Tuesday installed Colley Billie as its new chairman.

Billie — the tribe’s longtime poker director at its west Miami-Dade casino — campaigned on an economic development platform during tribal elections held in November. That message apparently resonated with the 650-member tribe, though Billie, adorned in a colorful tribal shirt at Tuesday’s ceremony, was vague with reporters on what his vow to be more economically “proactive” will actually mean.

Might the Miccosukees begin negotiations with the governor for Las Vegas-style slot machines and table games such as blackjack? Billie didn’t rule out the possibility, but said the tribe as a whole must sign off on such a decision.

“If they feel that they’re ready, maybe,” Billie told Miami Herald news partner WFOR-CBS4.

Florida’s Seminole Tribe is currently in negotiations with the state on a revenue-sharing compact agreement that would allow the Seminoles to continue offering blackjack and Las Vegas-style slots, in exchange for annual payments to the state. The Seminoles offer those games now, but the games exist under a legal cloud, as a previous compact signed by both Crist and the tribe was invalidated in court.

Crist, highlighting the fact that the still-pending deal with the Seminoles would boost state education coffers, said he’s willing to sit down with the Miccosukees as well.

“Certainly we’re open to doing anything we can to help the children of Florida get the very best education they deserve,” Crist said.

Billie also said the tribe will consider investing its gaming revenues into other types of businesses, though he didn’t get into specifics. The Seminoles have prospered in this arena — with ventures ranging from a cattle-breeding stint in Nicaragua to the tribe’s much-publicized acquisition of the Hard Rock brand in 2006.

“We once lived in the Everglades, and lived off the Everglades, but now we’re having to look on the outside for part of our survival,” Billie said.

The election of Billie to lead the Miccosukees — he narrowly beat longtime chairman Billy Cypress — comes as tribe’s casino faces increased competition from local parimutuels. Flagler Dog Track opened a slots casino several months ago, while Calder Race Course is about to unveil its own slots parlor. Both parimutuels boast the more-popular Vegas-style slots, while the Miccosukees still use so-called “Class II” machines that essentially are a slots-like version of bingo.

For the Miccosukees to make the jump to Vegas-style slots, the tribe would have to negotiate a revenue-sharing deal with the state — which would likely include some degree of state oversight. That particular provision may prove tricky for a tribe that has staunchly defended its sovereign status over the years.

Last year, the issue of Miccosukee sovereignty led to an all-out public spat between Miami-Dade State Attorney Katherine Fern├índez Rundle and the tribe. The disagreement was sparked by the Miccosukee Police Department’s handling of a fatal traffic crash that involved a tribe member and happened near, but not on, Indian land.

Asked about these lingering tensions with local law enforcement, Billie on Tuesday said “it’s just a matter of the two parties understanding and respecting one another.”

The Miccosukees have also had their battles with state and federal government efforts to restore the Everglades, with the Miccosukees taking their objections over some of the Everglades cleanup provisions to court. But at Tuesday’s swear-in, U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen praised the tribe’s “unsurpassed leadership” in the struggle to preserve the ecologically fragile River of Grass.

“Sovereignty is power,” said Ros-Lehtinen, a Pinecrest Republican whose husband is an attorney for the tribe. “Power to the Miccosukee tribe would be power to save the Everglades for all humanity.”

WFOR-CBS4 reporter Gary Nelson contributed to this report.