Wednesday, May 23, 2018
Business

Top state lawmakers: Be ready for more gambling talk next year

TALLAHASSEE — With Florida emerging as one of the largest gambling states in the nation, legislative leaders are prepared to put gaming regulation center stage in the next two years and renegotiate the revenue-sharing compact with the Seminole Tribe at least a year early.

House Speaker Will Weatherford and incoming Senate President Don Gaetz are vocal opponents of expanding gambling, but both told the Times/Herald that they believe it's time to take a comprehensive look at all gambling in the state and include the tribal compact, which now brings the state $233 million a year.

"We currently have a lot of gambling in the state of Florida, but we have to take a very holistic view," said Weatherford, a Wesley Chapel Republican. "There needs to be clarity and direction as to where the state is going," he added, and the tribal compact will "very likely" be part of that.

The Broward-based tribe is the owner of the Hard Rock casinos in Tampa and Hollywood and five other casinos in Florida. Its agreement with the state gives the Seminoles the exclusive right to offer blackjack and other table games in Miami-Dade and Broward counties through 2015 in exchange for annual payments to state and local governments.

Legislators imposed the expiration date when they ratified the compact in 2010 to give the state time to take a comprehensive look at Florida's gambling laws. Renewing it would allow the tribe to take up the issue before voters would take up a proposed constitutional amendment sought by the Malaysian-based casino giant, Genting, in 2014, and before political winds in the Legislature change in 2015.

That's when Sen. Andy Gardiner of Orlando and Rep. Chris Dorworth of Lake Mary are slated to take over as the Legislature's Senate president and House speaker. Both Republicans represent the politically powerful theme park industry, which views the Seminoles' gambling empire as a business threat.

But Sen. Ellyn Bogdanoff, a Fort Lauderdale Republican and leading gambling critic, is skeptical about the timing of the compact debate.

She said the agenda is being pushed by the Seminoles "so they can renew their monopoly."

"Follow the money,'' she said. "This debate is not about family values and the moral fiber of society. We have enough gaming in this state to make everybody an addict. This is about who is going to make the most money."

Bogdanoff and Rep. Eric Fresen, a Miami Republican, tried unsuccessfully last session to pass a bill that would have created a statewide gaming commission, streamlined the state's regulation of gambling, scaled back what they called "predatory gaming" and opened the door for convention-based resort casinos. If their bill had passed, the Seminoles would have faced massive competition from international and Las Vegas-based casino operators.

"If this state was interested in having a comprehensive discussion about gaming, we would have had it last year — when it barely got a hearing in the House," she said.

Gaetz, a Niceville Republican, said that although he opposes gambling, he is open to taking a comprehensive look at the state's gambling laws and to addressing the compact during his two-year term as Senate president.

"I don't know how aggressive the proponents of gaming expansion will be, but I would expect with the compact coming up — and the promise of jobs — there will be a conversation on this issue,'' he said. "Bills will be filed."

Gaetz, who has visited the Seminoles' tribal council, has already given the tribe a political advantage by imposing a $50,000 cap on contributions to the Senate Republican re-election fund from out-of-state casino operators. He has imposed no similar limits on the tribe.

Gaetz said he arrived at the policy after he was offered a $250,000 check to be delivered to his home as a contribution from an out-of-state gambling company with no operations yet in Florida. He declined to name the company.

There is no way to verify how much Gaetz's political committee accepted from any company, since the funds are co-mingled with the accounts reported by the Republican Party of Florida. Weatherford said he has imposed no such limits on the House Republican election fund.

But Disney, another Florida company that opposes destination casinos, has contributed $1.8 million to political campaigns through its affiliates so far, also in an attempt to influence the agenda. Bogdanoff believes the money in the process makes the odds of imposing comprehensive change even more unlikely.

"We don't have the political will to do what's necessary,'' she said. "There's too many special interests and too much money and we can't get it done."

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