Give contending constituencies a piece of the pie and maybe things will work out.
The Florida Senate is gambling on that strategy as lawmakers negotiate a renewed gaming compact with the Seminole Tribe of Florida and vie with powerful forces lobbying to expand “designated player” card games statewide.
Problem is, unless all parties agree, there is little time to negotiate compromises. One rapidly approaching deadline threatens the size of the pie while another could ban legislators from the pie pantry altogether.
The first deadline is a 2015 federal court order that allows the Seminoles to stop making $250 million in annual revenue-sharing payments to the state by the end of March if lawmakers don’t curtail the growth of ”designated player” games, a hybrid of poker and blackjack, in cardrooms across Florida.
The next comes in November when voters are presented with a proposed “No Casinos” constitutional amendment that would require 60 percent approval of a ballot measure to expand gambling, essentially removing legislators from the decision-making process regarding casinos.
Therefore, if lawmakers are to make significant changes to gambling regulations and renew the state’s gaming compact with the Seminole Tribe, the time to do so is now or, maybe, it will be never.
The Senate Finance and Tax Appropriations Subcommittee approved a 90-page gambling bill earlier this week that gives the Seminole Tribe of Florida’s seven casinos the exclusive right to offer craps and roulette while allowing pari-mutuel facilities statewide to run “designated player” card games.
Approval in committee of Senate Bill 840, sponsored by Sen. Travis Hutson, R-St. Augustine, was unanimous, but hardly enthusiastic.
“We are in a position we never wanted to be in: ‘no’ is not an option this year,” Chair Sen. Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland, told Hutson. “I will support your bill today and will vote to move it forward, but I may not support it on the floor.”
“This is a difficult and complicated issue,” Hutson said. “Everyone wants a piece of the pie. I wish I had two pies to feed everyone.”
Hutson conceded SB 840 will require negotiation with all contending parties and must be reconciled with several House bills before it is ready for adoption.
“This could be the last possible chance to regulate gaming as a legislative body, and I need not remind anyone on this committee the fiscal implication is hundreds of millions of dollars a year,” he said. ”We are just not there yet.”
SB 840 would renew the lapsed 2010 gaming compact between the state and the Seminole Tribe with a 20-year agreement. In exchange for up to $400 million in annual payments to the state – as much as $3 billion over the next seven years — the tribe receives exclusive rights to offer blackjack and roulette, a longtime objective.
Hutson’s bill is essentially the same as a House proposal regarding the compact renewal and granting the Seminoles exclusive blackjack and roulette rights. But HB 223 does not allow the expansion of “designated player” card games statewide.
While discussion of the compact renewal consumes 54 of the omnibus bill’s 90 pages, SB 840 features a number of other significant components. Among them:
- The Senate bill exempts fantasy sports from gambling regulations and clarifies that fantasy gaming is legal in Florida. This is also opposed by the Seminoles and is also not included in HB 223.
- SB 840 would allow horse and greyhound tracks to “decouple” live racing from offering slots. Currently, pari-mutuels can only operate slots when the track is offering a live event. Horse tracks that stop racing would have to make payments to the thoroughbred industry.
Stargel said the limited gaming was initially introduced as a supplemental activity but, if allowed to expand, could make racing at racetracks moot.
“Bait and switch,” she said. “When we decouple, what we have left is casinos.”
- The bill would severely restrict pari-mutuels’ ability to relocate or convert gambling licenses. This is opposed by the Fontainebleau Resort in Miami Beach, which is attempting to transfer the casino license from Mardi Gras Casino and Racetrack in Hallandale Beach to another site in Miami Beach. A proposed House bill would allow Turnberry Associates, which operates the Fontainebleau, to do so.
- Casinos in Miami-Dade and Broward counties would have the tax rate reduced to 30 percent in 2018, and to 25 percent in 2019.
- SB 840 would formally outlaw “pre-reveal games,” which are machine-style video devices often placed in bars. A Tallahassee judge has ruled they are illegal slots. The Seminoles oppose allowing “pre-reveal games.”