Tuesday, January 16, 2018
Politics

Florida House and Senate on different gambling tracks

TALLAHASSEE — A new House proposal would ban the expansion of slot machines and prohibit wildly popular card games at the state's parimutuels, putting the House at odds with a gambling industry-friendly plan floated by Senate Republican leaders.

The House measure is essentially a status quo proposal replacing a 20-year gambling agreement with the Seminole Tribe that is the subject of renewed negotiations between legislative leaders and Gov. Rick Scott's administration.

The proposal, released late Thursday, is diametrically opposite to a Senate plan that would allow slots in eight counties where voters have approved them and legalize controversial "designated player" games, which are at the heart of a legal dispute between the Seminoles and the state.

"This is the standoff at the OK Corral," said lobbyist Nick Iarossi, who represents dog tracks in Jacksonville and Melbourne that operate the card games and hope to add slots.

While the industry-friendly Senate plan (SB 8) and the House proposal, which protects the Seminoles' interests, are at different ends of the gambling continuum, the diverging strategies at least provide a starting point for negotiations — a sharp contrast from previous years, when lawmakers labored to even get gambling bills filed for consideration, and, if they did, the legislation languished.

Instead, committees in both chambers are moving ahead with their proposals before the legislative session kicks off on March 7.

The Senate proposal received unanimous support at its first vetting late last month and faces one more committee stop Thursday — the same day the House Tourism & Gaming Control Subcommittee plans to vote on its bill. The Senate bill then would be ready to head to the floor for a vote after the session starts.

Sen. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, is shepherding his chamber's legislation and was instrumental in crafting a 2010 agreement, known as a "compact," with the Seminoles. He said he remains confident lawmakers can reach a deal, despite the disparities in the two chambers' approaches.

"It's positive to see two bills, one in each chamber, moving this early in the process, in other words before session has even begun. So with these two bills out there, we all know what the playing field looks like, and there's time to negotiate further with the Seminoles and (between) the chambers," Galvano said Friday.

A portion of the 2010 compact that gave the tribe the exclusive rights to operate "banked" card games, such as blackjack, expired over a year ago, prompting a new round of negotiations between the Seminoles, the governor and the Legislature, whose approval is required for a deal to go into effect.

Under the House measure, the Seminoles would again be granted exclusive rights to the banked card games, this time in exchange for $3 billion in payments to the state over seven years.

But unlike a deal pitched by Scott and the tribe in late 2015 in which the Seminoles guaranteed to pay the same amount, the House proposal (PCB TGC 17-01) would not allow the tribe to operate craps and roulette. Lawmakers did not approve the 2015 deal.

The new House plan would ban parimutuels from adding slot machines in eight counties — Brevard, Duval, Gadsden, Lee, Hamilton, Palm Beach, St. Lucie and Washington — where voters have approved them.

The Florida Supreme Court is poised to rule on a case about whether parimutuels in counties where voters have approved slot machines can expand their operations without the legislative approval, something specifically addressed in the House bill.

The House's approach would also prohibit parimutuels from operating any kind of banked card games, including the controversial designated-player games that have eclipsed traditional poker in popularity at many of the state's card rooms.

The House measure also includes a potential olive branch for the Senate by steering a portion of the revenue from the tribe toward higher education, a priority of Senate President Joe Negron.

Despite the House's hard line against expansion of gambling, some in the industry remained upbeat.

"I'm optimistic something can get done, but it's the hardest subject matter in all of Florida politics," said lobbyist Brian Ballard, whose clients include the Palm Beach Kennel Club. "It's the first time in years you have both the House and Senate with a vehicle that at least we can sit down and try to resolve this stuff that needs to be resolved."

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