Gaming bill gets postponed; issue may be dead for the session
Mired by the prospect of uncertain court rulings and constant infighting by an aggressive industry, the Florida Senate signaled Tuesday that efforts to rewrite the state's gambling bills and ratify a gaming agreement with the Seminole Tribe may be dead for the session.
The Senate Appropriations Committee tabled two Senate bills that would have ratified the compact with the tribe, SB 7074, and a bill that would have opened the door to expanding slot machines in at least five counties where voters have approved it, SB 7072.
"It's not coming back up,'' said Sen. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, before the meeting.
Sen. Tom Lee, R-Brandon, chairman of the committee said the bills are likely dead for the session that is scheduled to end March 11, but it would be up to the bill sponsor, Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, to revive them at the next meeting of the committee on Thursday.
"Nothing's dead until the handkerchief drops but I would be very, very surprised if we saw any action on this issue this session,'' Bradley told the Herald/Times, noting that the proposal had become too laden with ways to expand gaming that it was unworkable.
If the Legislature fails to ratify the deal negotiated between the Gov. Rick Scott and the Seminole Tribe, it would be another blow to the governor's goals this session. In December, the governor signed a 20-year compact that would guarantee $3 billion over 7 years in exchange for giving the tribe the exclusive ability to offer craps and roulette in Florida, and slots and black jack outside Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach.
The guarantee has been touted as the largest Indian gaming agreement in U.S. history but it will not become law without legislative ratification.
Until then, the tribe continues to have the exclusive right to slot machines outside of Miami-Dade and Broward County in return for monthly revenue sharing payments of about $100 million under the 2010 compact. Another provision of that compact, which authorizes the tribe's exclusive operation of black jack at its South Florida casinos, has expired.
As lawmakers debate the new compact, the Seminole Tribe has continued to make monthly payments to the state of about $150 million in revenue sharing from the card games but the state is not spending the money until the compact is either renewed or a new one is ratified by the Legislature.
The Senate action comes a day after the House Finance & Tax Committee attempted to find middle ground on the gaming issue by passing a amendment to its gaming bill that would have expanded slot machines to dog and horse tracks in Palm Beach, Brevard, Gadsden, Lee and Washington counties where county-wide referendums have won approval for the measure by voters. The House committee also added a second bill to put a a constitutional amendment on the November ballot to require all future gaming expansion to go before voters.
House Finance & Tax Committee chairman, Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach, called the House bills a "love note to the Senate."
However, Senate leaders, aligned with the powerful pari-mutuel industry, could not accept the constitutional amendment and, while the House proposals were a strong ovation that the traditionally anti-gaming House was ready to deal, it was not enough.
"If you add too many ornaments to a tree the ornaments become so heavy the tree falls over,'' said Bradley, who worked with the governor's office on negotiating the compact.
Bradley said the Senate plan to expand slots licenses to the five counties outside of Miami-Dade and Broward was necessary to get approval for the bill in the Senate Regulated Industries Committee.
But even though Bradley authored the bill, he voted against it when an amendment was added to it during the Feb. 17 Regulated Industries Committee meeting, which he chairs. The Senate measure also would have expanded slot machines to the five counties where voters have authorized them.
Bradley said that he believes the compact "hit the sweet spot" between the push for expanded games and the tribe's desire to retain a competitive advantage, by allowing for expansion of slot machines only at the Palm Beach Kennel Club and by allowing another slots permit in Miami-Dade, but no where else.
"Obviously the process showed that members thought that we should have an expansion of gaming and that was more robust than was contemplated in that document,'' he said. "That was the tension then and continues to be the tension now."
Bradley, however, has warned that failure to ratify the compact also exposes the state to two pending lawsuits that could clarify and upend legislative authority over gaming and risk the annual $150 million in revenue sharing from the tribe's blackjack and other banked card games.
The tribe has sued the state alleging that because state regulators have authorized player-banked card games to be operated at card rooms at pari-mutuels around the state, the state has already breached the guarantee that the tribe offer banked card games exclusively.
Also uncertain is whether the Florida Supreme Court will overrule legislative authority based on a case involving a newly-established race track in Gadsden County. The court could rule either that lawmakers cannot authorize gaming expansion without a statewide constitutional amendment, as former Senator and Gov. Bob Graham argues in a brief filed with the court, or the court could agree with Creek Entertainment in Gretna that counties may add slot machines without legislative consent.
"The disappointing thing for me is that these decisions regarding gaming should be made here, in the Legislature amongst elected officials, not in a courtroom, not in an administrative hearing,'' Bradley said.
Gaetz also warned Monday that failing to address the issue would not be a wise solution.
"There is a very high cost to inaction," Gaetz said, noting that the lawsuit poses a "serious risk to the State of Florida because it is an open question as to whether or not games approved by the Department of Business and Professional Regulation violate the compact in its current form."
Bradley conceded the issue could be revived before session adjourns, but conceded, "gaming is on life support, for sure."