TALLAHASSEE — After years of resistance, the conservative leadership of the Florida House has signaled its willingness to pass legislation that would expand gambling in Florida to include new Las Vegas-style casinos in Miami-Dade and Broward in exchange for a constitutional amendment that requires voters to approve any future games.
"I would be willing to talk about gaming in the State of Florida, even expansion, in return for contraction in some areas and passing a constitutional amendment,'' House Speaker Will Weatherford said in an exclusive interview with the Times/Herald on Tuesday.
Weatherford added, however, that for the House to support new casinos there would have to be two strings attached: Gov. Rick Scott would have to negotiate a new gaming compact with the Seminole Tribe in 2014 — a year before a key provision is set to expire — and the new casinos would not start up unless a constitutional amendment is passed in November to require voter approval of any expansion of gambling beyond this year.
"It's a trade-off that I'm willing to do,'' Weatherford said.
Weatherford, a Republican from Wesley Chapel, said last week that a sweeping gaming bill was not a priority for him in the upcoming legislative session that begins in March. He said voters want to "have their hand on the wheel when it comes to expansion of gambling" and described expansion as "anything new."
He modified his position on Tuesday, saying that legislators should be allowed to expand gambling this year and then prevent the industry from broadening it in the future by requiring a statewide voter referendum on future plans.
"I don't want to say I speak for the whole House, but we have a ton of loopholes that have created a very disenfranchised gaming system in Florida,'' he said. "I would love to clean that up. I would also like to create long-term stability, so that if anybody else new wants to come to Florida and they want to expand gaming or any existing entity wants to expand gaming in Florida, they have to go to the voters and get a 60 percent referendum to do so."
Because the speaker dictates the agenda and controls which bills get a priority, Weatherford's statement Tuesday breathes new life into an issue that appeared to be stalled for another year.
It also guarantees that legislators have more time to solicit campaign contributions to their political committees from multinational casino giants as well as the Florida horse tracks, dog tracks and jai alai frontons that want their own casinos.
"The fact this is an issue being discussed by the Legislature at all is a testament to the political influence of the gambling industry,'' said John Sowinski, president of the Orlando-based No Casinos.
He said the discussion ignores the findings of Spectrum Gaming Group, which the Legislature paid $400,000 to analyze new gambling's impact on the Florida economy. It found that gambling would continue to expand and that the state's economy is so big that casinos would have little state impact.
"Never has so much intellectual energy been spent on an issue for which there is so little public appetite,'' Sowinski said.
State Sen. Gwen Margolis, a Miami Democrat who represents much of Miami Beach, said she was surprised at the change of heart by House leadership and questioned why a statewide referendum is good policy for the future but not for decisions made this year.
"We should have a statewide referendum to decide this,'' she said. "The people of Miami Beach do not want a casino on Miami Beach."
Margolis said legislators who support it have a double standard. "They say it's okay to have casinos, as long as they're in Dade, but don't put one in my back yard,'' she said.
Weatherford's statements put Scott squarely in the center of the debate. If legislators approve Weatherford's proposal, it could open the door to the possibility of a special legislative session during the gubernatorial campaign.
The governor is the only person in the state authorized to negotiate a compact with Seminole Tribe of Florida, a sovereign nation that is entitled to operate any gambling option the state offers.
A provision in the current compact gives the tribe the exclusive right to operate banked card games at its seven casinos until July 2015 in exchange for annual payments to the state. If the state allows a destination resort casino to offer the same games, the tribe can stop payments unless it renegotiates the agreement for other exclusive rights.
"I don't know how the Legislature can have a gaming bill if the governor doesn't have a new negotiated compact with the tribe,'' Weatherford said. "I think it has to happen this year."
Scott, who has said he will wait for the Legislature to take its lead, had not attempted to begin negotiations with the tribe as of last week, said Barry Richard, attorney for the Seminole Tribe.
"With the gaming compact set to expire in 2015, we will take the time needed to get the best deal for Floridians,'' said Frank Collins, the governor's communications director.
If Scott doesn't complete negotiations in time for lawmakers to craft a bill, it is possible legislators could come back in special session to take the issue up again. Since legislative rules prohibit lawmakers from raising campaign contributions while they are meeting in their 60-day annual session, a delay that leads to a special session would give them time to appeal to the various parties for campaign checks.
"Anything is possible,'' said incoming House Speaker Rep. Steve Crisafulli, R-Merritt Island. He said he supports Weatherford's approach, creating a "baseline" of expanded gambling and replacing the Department of Business and Professional Regulation with a more rigorous regulatory structure.
"I don't believe DBPR is appropriate for the gaming issue. I think it's a bigger issue than what they have the capacity to work on,'' he said.
Weatherford's comments signal a deep thaw in what has been a hard resistance among House leaders in the past to expanded gambling. Twice before the Senate has backed bills to allow for the so-called "destination resort" casinos and twice before the efforts were stopped in the House.
He said he has "never been a big fan of destination resort casinos," the mega resorts being pitched by Genting and Las Vegas Sands at locations in downtown Miami and Broward County. But, he said, "they have to be part of the conversation as we try to have this holistic debate on gaming."
Weatherford said the House will "wait to see what the Senate is doing and we're going to react to it." The Senate Gaming Committee is drafting a bill to allow for casino companies to bid for two new casino permits in Miami-Dade and Broward.
Meanwhile, Scott has kept quiet on the issue, but also accepted millions. In the last six months, the Seminole Tribe has given the governor's political committee one $500,000 check and Las Vegas Sands owner Sheldon Adelson has, so far, donated $250,000.
Two of Scott's oldest friends in Tallahassee are also gambling lobbyists: Billy Rubin and Gary Rutledge. They worked as Scott's lobbyists when he ran the Columbia/HCA hospital chain and both now represent Mardi Gras Racetrack and Casino and other parimutuel interests..
Mary Ellen Klas can be reached at meklas@MiamiHerald.com and on Twitter @MaryEllenKlas