Seminole Tribe agrees to keep sharing gaming revenue, but lawmakers want new deal

The Seminole Tribe signed an agreement with Gov. Rick Scott to formally extend payments to the state for another 13 months but legislative leaders say they are still talking about resetting the gaming deal.
Hard Rock Casino slot machines in Tampa.
Hard Rock Casino slot machines in Tampa.
Published April 19, 2018

In an effort to forestall a special legislative session to expand slot machine gaming around the state, the Seminole Tribe on Wednesday signed an agreement with the governor to continue its monthly revenue sharing payments until May 2019, when next year's session ends.

The agreement, however, doesn't look like it's going to stop talk of a gaming special session sometime in the next month. House and Senate leaders face an expensive election cycle that could benefit from gaming industry contributions, and they are staring down a constitutional amendment that, if voters approve, could take away their control over gaming expansion in Florida.

"The discussions on the special session are continuing," said Sen. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, the incoming Senate president and the Senate's key negotiator.

He said it "shows good faith" on the part of the tribe but added, "there is no agreement as to whether we'll actually have one, or what the legislation might look like, but having the forbearance agreement extended doesn't mean that those discussions will stop."

For the past several days, Galvano and incoming House Speaker Jose Oliva, R-Miami Lakes, have been trading proposals that will open the door to a major shift in gambling options around the state before voters take up Amendment 3, which would require a statewide vote to expand gambling options in Florida.

The latest plan includes allowing six counties that have conducted voter referendums to introduce slot machines at their parimutuels but only if the parimutuel owners purchase a live permit from another parimutuel operator somewhere else in the state — allowing legislators to say they have reduced, or contracted, gaming in the state.

Horse and dog tracks would no longer be required to operate live racing in order to conduct card games or slots parlors, under the proposal, and the new gambling venues would be required to guarantee a significant amount of revenue to the state.

In Broward County, Jeff Soffer, the owner of the Fountainebleau Hotel in Miami Beach, would be allowed to move the permit from the Mardi Gras Casino and Racetrack in Hallandale Beach to another location but only within Broward County — not to his Miami Beach hotel, which has long been his goal.

Because the legislative proposal would violate the 2010 agreement between the state and the Seminole Tribe, the governor would be given the authority to renegotiate the deal and give the tribe additional games and locations, and the Tribe would pay the state less, Galvano said.

"The goal is foremost a contraction" in the total amount of gaming in Florida, Oliva said in a text message, adding that he is also seeking "a mechanism that is equitable to all."

Three weeks ago, Galvano told the Times/Herald that he and Oliva were discussing the need to convene a special session because of "the possible loss of revenue from the Seminole Tribe and the impacts on the state budget."

That fear was based on the so-called "forbearance" agreement the tribe signed with the state after winning a court order last year that said the state violated the tribe's exclusive right to operate banked card games such as blackjack at its Hard Rock and other casinos because it allowed player-banked card games known as "designated player games" to be offered at horse and dog tracks and jai-alai frontons.

Under the settlement, the tribe agreed to continue monthly payments to the state until March 30, even if it was not satisfied with the way the state was regulating the designated player games.

Legislators had asked the tribe to extend the forbearance agreement before it expired and, when the tribe didn't, lawmakers worried that the tribe would stop payments — even though the tribe continued payments while it was suing regulators.

Galvano now says the reason for a special session has more to do with Amendment 3.

The constitutional amendment is backed primarily by Disney Worldwide and has the support of the Seminole Tribe. If it gets the 60 percent of the vote needed to become law, legislators will have less influence over all gaming decisions, and the political fundraising that comes from the pari-mutuel industry could shrink.

"The constitutional amendment will either change the playing field completely, or leave the status quo and, if we wanted to make legislative decisions that might otherwise be wrested away from us if the amendment passes, we would need to do that before November," Galvano said.

Gov. Rick Scott said in a statement Wednesday that the agreement means "revenue sharing payments from the Tribe will carry on as the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation continues its work of aggressively following and enforcing Florida's strict gaming laws and rules."

Marcellus Osceola Jr., chairman of the Seminole Tribe of Florida, said the tribe is investing more than $2.4 billion to expand its Seminole Hard Rock Casinos in Tampa and Hollywood and "intends to continue making revenue sharing payments as spelled out in the agreement."