TAMPA — When the legislative session starts this week, an unlikely group will be keeping tabs on talks about new casinos in South Florida — management of six local cultural institutions, including the Florida Aquarium, Lowry Park Zoo and David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts.
For each of the past three years, the six institutions have shared about $2 million in Seminole Tribe gaming funds. The tribe pays Florida more than $200 million annually as part of a compact that gives the Seminoles exclusive rights to blackjack and other games in its casinos, including the Seminole Hard Rock Tampa. The compact calls for part of that money to go to local communities where the casinos are located.
Proposed legislation to allow more casinos in South Florida — and thus create competition for Seminole casinos — could nullify the compact and jeopardize a revenue stream that has helped places like the Museum of Science and Industry in Tampa.
"It'd be a nightmare of a problem," said MOSI president Wit Ostrenko, whose museum got $585,915 of the money in 2013.
MOSI has a roughly $10 million budget, Ostrenko said, and if the gambling money went away he'd be forced to reduce staff or scale back an expense like the $500,000 yearly MOSI gives away in tickets and scholarships to its summer science camps.
The gaming money goes from the state to Hillsborough County government, which supplements it with some county money and then splits it among the six institutions that also include the Glazer Children's Museum and Tampa Bay History Center.
Brandon Wagner, Hillsborough's legislative affairs officer, said the county's lobbyists have asked local lawmakers, when considering any expanded gambling, to try to make sure the gaming money or some replacement money keeps coming.
"We're uncertain of what's going to happen, but we're certainly monitoring it," Wagner said.
Last week, Florida's Senate Gaming Committee released three proposed bills that would allow two more casino resorts — one each in Miami-Dade and Broward counties — and slot machines in six more counties. Out-of-state casino operators have expressed interest in building in South Florida, and voters in counties like Palm Beach and Lee have approved adding slots to their racetracks.
Passage is far from certain. House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, has said he would approve expanded gambling only if Gov. Rick Scott comes out in favor and negotiates a new compact with the Seminole Tribe.
Scott, who is running for re-election this fall, has not yet taken a stand. The current compact will expire in 2015.
If the gaming money ends, County Administrator Mike Merrill said, the county would consider replacing it with county money for the six institutions.
"We'll have to weigh it against other needs," Merrill said. "We knew there always was a risk that, at some point in the future, that money would go away."
For the Florida Aquarium, the $307,135 each year in gaming money has helped pay for new offerings like the Journey to Madagascar exhibit that opened Saturday, and a new "touch a stingray" tank.
"It's been a blessing," said aquarium president and CEO Thom Stork. "If it goes away, we'll have to make adjustments."
MOSI's Ostrenko said, regardless of what happens in Tallahassee, county and city of Tampa government officials should consider chipping more money into his budget.
Of the 33 largest science museums in the country, the average facility gets 21 percent of its budget covered with government money, Ostrenko said MOSI's research shows. MOSI's number is 6 percent.
"We are vital and valuable institutions," Ostrenko said. "The bigger picture here, to me, is the lack of government support of cultural institutions in Florida."
Will Hobson can be reached at (813) 226-3400 or [email protected]