Sunday, January 21, 2018
Politics

Romano: Is Florida dealing from the bottom of the deck on gambling?

This is what you might call being legally flexible:

The state has accused pari-mutuel facilities across Florida of operating illegal card games, while in a separate lawsuit denying the games exist.

"The state," observed lawyer John Lockwood "has a very nuanced position."

I'm not saying the state is unethical. I'm not even saying the state is wrong. I'm just pointing out that tap dancing seems to be a job requirement in Tallahassee.

And, also, our gambling laws are a mess.

The only sure bet in this state is that you can find some gambling-related lawsuit in a courthouse near you.

In no particular order:

• An administrative law judge ruled Monday that parimutuels were skirting the rules with "banked" card games that were supposed to be exclusive to Seminole casinos.

• The state demanded last year that the Seminoles themselves stop offering "banked" card games, including blackjack, because that part of their exclusive deal had expired.

• The Seminoles, in turn, filed suit saying the state had violated the exclusivity part of their deal by allowing "banked" games at parimutuels as well as electronic blackjack.

• The parimutuels, meanwhile, went to court to fight changes to the state's rules regarding "banked" card games, saying regulators did not go through proper channels.

• And the state Supreme Court is considering a blockbuster case that may allow counties to approve slot machines without the state's blessing.

Confused?

Here's a simpler explanation:

It's about money. Stacks and stacks of money. In a deposition acquired by Politico earlier this year, Seminole Gaming CEO Jim Allen revealed the tribe had pulled in roughly $2.2 billion the previous year. And everyone wants a larger slice of that pie.

So the governor negotiates with the tribe for exclusivity. And the parimutuels lobby their local legislators to avoid being left with crumbs.

And that's what's led to this latest stink.

Parimutuels like dog and horse tracks have been allowed to have card rooms for years because poker is not considered a "banked" game. That is, the players compete against each other and not the casino. (Although the house makes its money by taking a cut of the pot.) Blackjack, on the other hand, is each player competing against the house. Thus, it is a "banked" game.

This was gambling's version of the Maginot Line.

Except, four years ago, the state allowed parimutuels to offer other poker games as long as a "designated" player was controlling the chips. The designated player is supposed to be an average customer. Instead, designated players who had no real interest in playing were showing up unannounced (wink, wink) to essentially represent the house.

So, while the game itself might have been legal, the way it was being run did not exactly conform to state laws. The Seminole Tribe, which pays the state for its exclusive rights, was not happy and complained. The state, which has grown fond of the tribe's money, was suddenly shocked — shocked! — to discover rules were being bent.

Thus, Florida is going after the parimutuels for running quasi-banked games while, at the same time, denying the Seminole lawsuit that alleges the state knew all about this.

So what does this all mean?

For a state that supposedly wants to control the growth of gambling, Florida is running its own high-stakes game.

By not coming to terms with both parimutuels and the Seminole Tribe, the state is now allowing the courts to get involved with rulings that could dramatically change the gambling landscape.

The state should have known better:

This is what happens when someone calls your bluff.

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