Saturday, May 26, 2018
Politics

Gambling expansion all but dead in Florida Legislature as Senate postpones action

TALLAHASSEE — Mired down by the prospect of uncertain court rulings and constant infighting by an aggressive industry, the Florida Senate signaled Tuesday that efforts to rewrite the state's gambling bills and ratify a gaming agreement with the Seminole Tribe may be dead for the legislative session.

The Senate Appropriations Committee tabled Senate bills that would have ratified the compact with the tribe, SB 7074, and that would have opened the door to expanding slot machines in at least five counties where voters have approved it, SB 7072.

"It's not coming back up,'' said Sen. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, before the meeting.

Sen. Tom Lee, R-Brandon, chairman of the committee, said the bills are likely dead for the session that is scheduled to end March 11. It would be up to the bills' sponsor, Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, to revive them at the next committee meeting on Thursday.

"Nothing's dead until the handkerchief drops, but I would be very, very surprised if we saw any action on this issue this session,'' Bradley told the Times/Herald, noting that the proposals had become too laden with ways to expand gaming to move forward.

If the Legislature fails to ratify the deal negotiated between Gov. Rick Scott and the Seminole Tribe, it would be another blow to the governor's goals this session. In December, the governor signed a 20-year compact that would guarantee $3 billion over seven years in exchange for giving the tribe the exclusive right to offer craps and roulette in Florida, and slots and blackjack outside Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties.

The deal had been touted as the largest Indian gaming agreement in U.S. history, but it won't become law without legislative ratification.

Until then, the tribe continues to have the exclusive right to operate slot machines outside of Miami-Dade and Broward counties, including at its Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Tampa, in return for payments to the state under the 2010 compact. Another provision of that agreement authorizing the tribe's exclusive operation of blackjack at its South Florida casinos has expired.

As lawmakers have debated the new compact, the Seminole Tribe has been continuing to make monthly payments to the state as part of revenue sharing from the card games. But the state is not spending the money until the compact is renewed or a new one is approved by the Legislature.

The Senate action comes a day after the House Finance & Tax Committee attempted to find middle ground on the gaming issue by passing an amendment to its gaming bill that would have expanded slot machines to dog and horse tracks in Palm Beach, Brevard, Gadsden, Lee and Washington counties where county-wide referendums have won approval for the measure by voters. The House committee also added a second bill to put a constitutional amendment on the November ballot to require all future gaming expansion to go before voters.

But Senate leaders, aligned with the powerful parimutuel industry, could not accept the constitutional amendment.

"If you add too many ornaments to a tree, the ornaments become so heavy the tree falls over,'' said Bradley, who worked with the governor's office on negotiating the compact.

Bradley has warned that failure to ratify the compact exposes the state to two pending lawsuits that could pose a risk to the annual $150 million in revenue sharing from the tribe's blackjack and other banked card games.

The tribe has sued the state, alleging that because state regulators have authorized player-banked card games to be operated at card rooms at parimutuels around the state, the state has already breached the guarantee that the tribe offer banked card games exclusively.

Also uncertain: whether the Florida Supreme Court will overrule legislative authority on gaming expansion based on a case involving a newly established racetrack in Gadsden County. The court could rule either that lawmakers cannot authorize gaming expansion without a constitutional amendment or that Creek Entertainment in Gretna is correct in saying counties may add slot machines without legislative consent.

"The disappointing thing for me is that these decisions regarding gaming should be made here, in the Legislature amongst elected officials, not in a courtroom, not in an administrative hearing,'' Bradley said.

Contact Mary Ellen Klas at [email protected]erald.com. Follow @MaryEllenKlas.

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