Gambling expansion strategies — and misfires — are nearly an annual ritual in Florida. There were the eight counties that voted to allow slot machines but were blocked by the Florida Supreme Court. There was the governor's $3 billion deal with the Seminole Tribe in 2015 that was never approved by the Legislature. And there were dueling Senate and House versions of bills this year that would have permitted craps and roulette but eventually fizzled out. In the end, Gov. Rick Scott agreed to a much simpler deal with the Seminole Tribe that embraces the status quo instead of expansion. And that's a good thing.
The new deal, which is essentially an extension of the compact that was signed in 2010, will allow the Seminoles to continue offering blackjack exclusively at their casinos until 2030. The tribe already had paid $1 billion for the first five years of the deal, and the state will now get a $340 million infusion of cash in the next year, including money held in escrow since 2015. This is a commonsense solution that protects the state from the next-in-line expansion plans that have been threatening to turn Florida cities into southern versions of Las Vegas.
Since Florida's affair with gambling always involves drama amid the winners and losers, there likely will be challenges or complaints about the extension of the deal with the Seminoles. The pari-mutuel operators understandably feel left behind.
As part of the deal, the state has agreed to pursue "aggressive enforcement action'' against pari-mutuels that continue to offer "designated player'' games that mimic the "banked'' card games that are supposed to be exclusive to the Seminoles. "Banked'' games, such as blackjack, pit players against the house, i.e. the bank, instead of other players. To get around the exclusivity clause, pari-mutuels have been offering games, such as three-card poker or Texas Hold 'Em, that allow a "designated player'' to serve as the bank. The Seminoles sued the state for violating the spirit of the 2010 compact by permitting "designated player'' games, and a judge ruled in the tribe's favor late last year.
The state appealed the decision but, with the writing on the wall Scott was wise to extend the current agreement instead of allowing gambling policy to be dictated by the courts. The state will now drop its appeal. The pari-mutuels could lose a lucrative portion of their businesses if the Department of Business and Professional Regulation enforces the court's interpretation of "designated player'' games, but they were pushing the envelope.
While this new deal does not require legislative approval, lawmakers still need to address the concerns of pari-mutuels that have fallen on hard times. One simple fix would be to follow through on the decoupling discussions of recent years. Decoupling would allow pari-mutuels to continue offering gambling alternatives without being required to have live dog or horse racing. For tracks that have seen racing expenses outpace revenues, this would give them a more viable business model.
Undoubtedly, this will not end gambling discussions in Tallahassee. The Legislature could put its own spin on the blackjack agreement next year, and there always will be pressure to bring full casinos to Florida to compete with the Seminoles. That's a fight for another day. The governor's deal with the Seminole Tribe strikes an adequate balance between bringing in revenues for the state and keeping any expansion of gambling at bay.