Expand gambling in Florida? Lawmakers fold, will let voters decide.

Voters will decide in November whether they, or the Legislature, should have the power to decide if parimutuels can add slot machines.
Published April 26, 2018

Legislators are going to leave the question of whether to expand gambling up to voters in November.

After weeks of backroom diplomacy, legislative leaders announced Wednesday they couldn't agree on how to update gambling laws and therefore won't hold a special session in the next month.

That means voters will decide whether they, or the Legislature, should have the power to decide if parimutuels in eight counties will be able to introduce slot machines to revive their ailing facilities.

The decision came after weeks of backroom diplomacy between Sen. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, the incoming Senate president and Rep. Jose Oliva, R-Miami, the incoming House speaker. The leaders were trying to find a way to update the state's gaming laws before voters have a chance to complicate the Legislature's role with a constitutional amendment on the November ballot. Amendment 3, "Voter Control of Gaming," would require a statewide vote to expand gambling options in Florida.

Parimutuels in eight counties — from Gretna, in North Florida's Gadsden County, to Palm Beach in the south — have won voter approval within their counties for slot machines. But if legislators authorize the machines, they will violate the gaming compact that gives the Seminole Tribe the exclusive right to offer slot machines on its seven reservations. The compact also gives the tribe exclusive rights to offer blackjack at its Hard Rock casinos.
"There will be no special [session,]," said Galvano in a text message to the Times/Herald, after telling Senate President Joe Negron and House Speaker Richard Corcoran that an agreement seemed unlikely.

Negron, R-Stuart, said the House and Senate had agreed to a framework to allow the eight counties to compete for six licenses but uncertainties over the complex issues scuttled the session. He outlined three reasons for the collapse in talks: uncertainty about the impact an agreement would have on the state budget; uncertainty surrounding the legal implications of the proposed constitutional amendment; and pressure to expand the agenda of the special session, known as the "call," into other areas, once legislators were in Tallahassee.

"Once you're in session, the governor can expand the call or the House and Senate can expand the call and if there is pressure to do that, that would be challenging," Negron said.

Several lawmakers have been urging House and Senate leaders to give school districts more money to finance school resource officers, as required by the school safety proposal passed in the wake of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School massacre in Parkland in February.

Oliva said in a text message that there were "too many components to resolve in a short time frame" but added: "will revisit during regular session."

Galvano and Oliva first suggested they convene a special session after a March 30 deadline passed that guaranteed the Seminole Tribe of Florida would continue to make monthly payments to the state even though the state violated the gaming compact by authorizing new card games that operate much like banked card games, like blackjack, which the state had guaranteed the tribe could offer exclusively in Florida.

But when the tribe announced last week that it had signed an agreement with the governor to continue its monthly revenue sharing payments until May 2019, when next year's session ends, "that resulted in a diminution of urgency," Negron said.

Galvano and Oliva continued talks, however, concerned about the impact of Amendment 3 as well as an amendment put on the ballot by the Constitution Revision Commission to require dog tracks to phase out greyhound racing by 2020.

Policymakers are concerned that if both amendments are approved, the Legislature will not be able to modify state law to give racetracks updated gaming permits for their slot machines and poker rooms without statewide voter approval.

Although this is the third consecutive year legislators have tried and failed to resolve the state's gaming conflicts since the Seminole Tribe signed an updated compact with the governor, the discussions marked a turning point in the recent gaming debate. For the first time in a long time, the more conservative House was supportive of allowing the state to expand slot machine gaming to counties that had approved them by referendum. Corcoran was driving that debate and is expected to announce a run for governor in the next two weeks.

Among the proposals under consideration between the House and Senate was a plan to allow the tribe to reduce its payments to the state by about $160 million a year. To make up the lost revenue, lawmakers proposed allowing the lucrative "designated player" card games, such as Three-Card poker and Ultimate Texas Hold 'em, at parimutuels and applying a tax to those proceeds.

Designated player card games have become the latest opportunity to breathe new life into ailing dog tracks around the state. Melbourne Greyhound Park and the Jacksonville Kennel Club, for example, have been able to hire dozens of new employees because of the revenue. But a federal court has declared the games also violate the compact because they play like banked card games, and the tribe has threatened to withhold payments to the state if regulators don't halt those games by May 2019.

However, in order for many in the House to claim success in the chamber that opposes gambling, they needed to be able to say there has been significant gaming reduction in the state's gaming footprint. Oliva had proposed requiring the parimutuels that add slot machines to obtain a gaming license from an existing brick and mortar operation, including cardrooms.

Negron said that proposal, however, was objectionable to many in the Senate, where legislators representing rural areas expressed concern about losing jobs.

"You would literally have to shut down a business," he said. "That is completely antithetical to any pro-business policy."

Meanwhile, the No Casinos effort to limit expansion of gambling with a constitutional amendment on the November ballot loomed as a complicating factor as well. No Casinos director John Sowinski argued that the amendment may be retroactively applied to any expansion and therefore could invalidate any attempt by the Legislature to authorize slot machines in a special session.

Negron said the uncertainty of the impact of Amendment 3 applied to the legislature's attempt to reduce the number of existing licenses as well as authorize new ones.

"There are so many opinions about what the effect of the amendment would be," Negron said. "It was difficult to get a certain legal determination on that issue that we could depend on."