This proposal will prevent slot machine expansion in Tampa Bay

The bill, PCB TGC 18-01, was approved by the House Tourism & Gaming Control Subcommittee 9-6 along party lines.
Hard Rock Casino slot machines in Tampa.
Hard Rock Casino slot machines in Tampa.
Published Jan. 30, 2018

The Florida House revived legislation Tuesday to prevent any expansion of gambling in Florida for the next 20 years, force the shutdown of some card games, secure the Seminole Tribe's monopoly in the state, and ice out any slot machne expansion in Tampa Bay.

The bill, PCB TGC 18-01, was approved by the House Tourism & Gaming Control Subcommittee 9-6 along party lines, and is similar to the measure passed last year by the same committee. It directs Gov. Rick Scott to renew the existing compact with the tribe, which runs two Hard Rock Casinos near Hollywood and Tampa and four other casinos in Florida, and keeps it in force for two more decades.

But unlike the measure from last year, the bill outlaws a new form of gaming offered at most poker rooms called "designated player games," a hybrid between blackjack and poker, where the bank is supposed to revolve among the players. It also prohibits counties outside of Miami-Dade and Broward that have approved referendums allowing slot machines from installing them.

"It would probably box up all gaming and gambling in the state of Florida for 20 years," said Rep. Michael LaRosa, R-St. Cloud, chair of the committee.

The House plan increases the minimum guarantee in revenues from the compact from about $250 million a year to at least $325 million in exchange for exclusive operation of blackjack in Miami-Dade and Broward counties and slot machines at its casinos outside of South Florida. And for the first time since the state began accepting revenues from the Tribe in exchange for exclusive operations of its games, the bulk of the money would go into education programs aimed at expanding charter schools and to recruit and retain teachers in both K-12 schools and higher education.

It's uncertain whether the bill will again be used by House leaders to push for a measure that would allow for the local expansion of gambling, particularly allowing for a new casino permit in Miami-Dade County.

Last year, under the leadership of then-Rep. José Félix Díaz, the Miami Republican who resigned to run unsuccessfully for the state Senate, the bill became a vehicle to open the door to a new casino in South Florida. The measure faced intense opposition from Miami-Dade government and business leaders, including Mayor Carlos Giménez, Armando Codina, Mike Fernandez and Norman Braman. The casino expansion plan died when the session ended.

That idea has not surfaced publicly this year, but rumors about it abound as the Fontainebleau has indicated that it is interested in pursuing a slot license if lawmakers were to approve an additional one in Miami-Dade County or allow the transfer of an existing license.

Fontainebleau owner Jeffrey Soffer announced two weeks ago that he is in talks to purchase the Mardi Gras Casino and Race Track in Hallandale Beach, which owns an existing slots license. A top lobbyist for Soffer in Tallahassee is Michael Corcoran, brother of House Speaker Richard Corcoran.

The House plan has many obstacles before becoming law.

Democrats voted against the measure, arguing that by steering the new revenues into the controversial charter-school expansion plan, Schools of Hope, and into the controversial bonus pay initiative "Best and Brightest," it injected a "poison pill" into the bill they could not accept.

"Those are bad programs that no member from my side of the aisle votes for, with rare, rare exceptions," said Rep. Joe Geller, D-Dania Beach. "This is a bad deal."

The Senate has not advanced a bill to ratify the gaming compact but has proposed SB 840 by Sen. Travis Hutson, R-Palm Coast, which would allow racetracks to operate casinos without live racing, reduce taxes on some slot machine operations and exempt fantasy sports games from regulation in Florida.

Another big point of contention between the chambers is whether to allow slot machines at race tracks and jai-alai facilities in eight counties where voters have approved them — Brevard, Duval, Gadsden, Hamilton, Lee, Palm Beach, St. Lucie and Washington. The committee rejected an amendment by Geller that would have allowed slot machines in counties that have approved them by Jan. 1, 2019.

Last year, the House agreed in part to a Senate plan to allow nearly all dog and horse tracks to do away with live racing but keep more lucrative card rooms or slot machines, a process known as "decoupling." The House, however, required voters to approve decoupling in county referendums.

The bill advanced by the House committee Tuesday, however, provides market protection to the horse and dog racing industries by suggesting that decoupling would violate the provisions of the gaming compact with the Seminole Tribe, meaning that if lawmakers allowed the tracks to stop racing the state could lose revenue from the Tribe.

The new House language clarifies that slot machine games which ask players to press a "preview" button before a play button can be activated, are slot machines. A district court last year concluded that the games were neither a game of skill or chance, prompting some parimutuels, bars and entertainment facilities to install them.

The House bill has the support of the anti-gaming No Casinos advocacy group, the Florida Thoroughbred Breeders Association and the Florida Greyhound Association. It was opposed by Democrats who want to give horse and dog tracks that must compete with the tribe more gaming options.

Also in the last year, No Casinos, a gaming opposition group, has succeeded in getting an amendment onto the November ballot aimed at taking casino expansion decisions out of the hands of the Legislature and requiring a statewide referendum before any new gaming options are authorized.