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Legislators say they’re starting gaming talks as ballot question has them worried

Incoming legislative leaders Bill Galvano and Jose Oliva said they received an 'introductory offer' from the Seminole Tribe as they work to find a resolution that could promise them annual revenues from the Hard Rock casinos
Rep. Jose Oliva and Sen. Bill Galvano in 2016.
Rep. Jose Oliva and Sen. Bill Galvano in 2016.
Published Feb. 2, 2018|Updated Feb. 2, 2018

It's looks like it's post time in the annual horse race over gambling in the Florida Legislature.

Sen. Bill Galvano, the Senate's incoming president, and Rep. Jose Oliva, the House's incoming speaker, sat down Thursday with a top leaders of the Seminole Tribe of Florida and Senate leaders concluded they are moving full-speed ahead to reach a deal.

"I'd rather, frankly, not have to deal with this issue next year. I believe the speaker designate [OIiva] feels the same way," Galvano told reporters Thursday. "It's not just the gaming component of it but it's also a significant part of our revenue, and revenue estimating going forward. So I'd rather us get it resolved."

Galvano, R-Bradenton, said he and Oliva, R-Miami Lakes, met with Jim Allen, CEO of Seminole Gaming, Jim Shore, the tribe's general counsel, Barry Richard and and Andrew Barnes, a member of the tribal council and they discussed an "introductory offer."

Pivotal to their discussion was the potential impact of a constitutional amendment on the November ballot that, if approved, will leave future decisions about gambling expansion up to voters and limit the ability of the Legislature to expand gambling in Florida.

"It wasn't even an elephant in the room. We talked about it straight away," Galvano said. "They're not taking for granted that the amendment or the expiration of the [existing compact with the state] is not necessarily their path to stability. They realize that to be in a stable environment, they have to work with us going forward."

The Seminoles are eager to renew talks to ratify or modify the compact negotiated between them and Gov. Rick Scott that gives tribal casinos exclusive rights to offer certain games in exchange for more than $250 million in annual payments to the state. A part of the agreement between the state and the Tribe governing blackjack and other "banked" card games expired in 2015 and was the subject of a federal lawsuit that resulted in the settlement with the governor.

Although the House this week moved its bill to ratify the 2015 settlement, the Senate has only advanced legislation that would expand gaming in the eight counties that have authorized slot machines at their parimutuels facilities. Galvano said the Senate will amend its bill at the next meeting with a new comprehensive gaming plan.

"My expectation is if we are able to reach a resolution, there is going to be a significant strike-all to all of it," he said.

Galvano said that with the amendment on the ballot, time is running out to complete a deal before the Legislature loses its ability to make comprehensive changes to the state's gaming laws.

"There may be a mass exodus to the Georgia line if it passes, and it looks like it's on its way," he said.

Meanwhile, Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart, outlined the parameters of the Senate's gaming plan, saying that like last year the chamber would not support a bill that does not allow for the expansion of gambling in the eight counties that have already approved slot machines.

"Nothing has changed. We owe it to the hundreds of thousands of fellow citizens who live in the eight counties that approved referendums — including St.Lucie County, which I represent," Negron said. He said he wants to treat the existing pari-mutuels which have operated in the state for generations "fairly and equitably while we're negotiating with the Seminole Tribe."

If 60 percent of voters approve the constitutional amendment, it will "severely restrict the ability of the Legislature to make decisions in how we move forward in gaming. So I think it brings some sense of timeliness to our discussions," he said.

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