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Gaming deal ‘is close,’ Desantis tells parimutuel leaders

For more than a decade, legislators have tried to update gambling laws. Could this be the year?
Pat Rooney, president of the Palm Beach Kennel Club, far right, leads a group of gambling executives to the governor’s office on Thursday, March 18. Gov. Ron DeSantis invited officials from Florida’s 26 remaining parimutuels to meet with him and Senate President Wilton Simpson as they draft gambling legislation, including a measure to give a gaming permit to the Fontainebleau Hotel in Miami Beach.
Pat Rooney, president of the Palm Beach Kennel Club, far right, leads a group of gambling executives to the governor’s office on Thursday, March 18. Gov. Ron DeSantis invited officials from Florida’s 26 remaining parimutuels to meet with him and Senate President Wilton Simpson as they draft gambling legislation, including a measure to give a gaming permit to the Fontainebleau Hotel in Miami Beach. [ MARY ELLEN KLAS | Miami Herald ]
Published Mar. 18
Updated Mar. 18

TALLAHASSEE — Florida legislators are “getting close” to a new gambling deal with the Seminole Tribe of Florida, Gov. Ron DeSantis and Senate President Wilton Simpson told 20 top officials of Florida’s casinos, poker rooms, horse tracks and jai-alai facilities on Thursday, according to the some of the men in attendance at the closed-door meeting in the Capitol.

Simpson, DeSantis and House Speaker Chris Sprowls, all Republicans, have been in behind-the-scenes talks with the Tribe over a new gambling compact for several months as part of an ambitious plan to draft a proposal this legislative session.

“We will probably know one way or the other within the next week or so whether we have a path to agreement,” DeSantis told reporters after the meeting with the pari-mutuel leaders.

For more than a decade, legislators have been asked to update the state’s gaming laws, authorize new games for the industry and allow wealthy hotel owners to open a casino. But the bills never pass, often dragged down by their own weight.

“It seems to be the third rail of the Legislature,’' said Sprowls, from Palm Harbor. In his six years in state House, no gaming bill has ever passed, he said, because there are so many interlocking parts involving competing interests.

“The issue with gaming is wildly complex,’' Sprowls said. He said he will listen this year but emphasized this is a priority for Simpson, an egg farmer from Pasco County who is widely expected to run for agriculture commissioner in 2022.

The Seminole Tribe of Florida stopped paying the state $350 million in annual revenue sharing after former Gov. Rick Scott refused to crack down on pari-mutuels operating designated-player games, a hybrid between blackjack and poker, where the “bank” is supposed to revolve among the players. A court said that because the state had allowed the Tribe’s competitors to operate the games, that violated their gaming compact, which called for the state giving the Tribe the exclusive ability to offer blackjack. The Tribe said it would not comment on the negotiations.

Real estate mogul Jeff Soffer is seeking to transfer a gaming permit from Broward County to Miami Beach’s Fontainebleau Hotel and Resort to allow him to achieve his long-sought goal of opening a destination casino.

When asked by reporters whether they support transferring the Soffer permit from Broward to Miami-Dade County, neither Simpson nor Sprowls would respond directly.

“That will also come out during the negotiations of the compact and negotiations on the pari-mutuel bill,’' said Simpson of Trilby. “Once we get a deal negotiated, then I’ll weigh in and try to help get whatever it is across the line.”

The meeting with DeSantis and Simpson included owners of some of Florida’s oldest race tracks, such as Pat Rooney of Palm Beach Kennel Club, Isadore Havenick of Magic City Casino and Flagler Dog Track, and Richard Winning of Derby Lane in St. Petersburg.

Speaking to reporters at the end of the day, Simpson said the legislation relating to a gaming compact could be released next week but he continued to dodge questions about the specifics and would not answer whether he told Soffer, when he met with him on his megayacht on Sept. 27, if he supported his plan for a gaming permit.

Although DeSantis and his staff have been actively engaged in meeting with the members of the industry, DeSantis downplayed the importance of reaching a deal that would result in added revenue to the state.

“Our revenues are coming in better than anticipated’' a year ago, DeSantis said, noting that both the state economy and the federal stimulus checks had a lot to do with that.

“If it’s something that benefits the state, we obviously have an obligation to work to do that, but at the same time, we are not in a position where we’re desperately needing additional revenue at this point, and I think that that’s a good position to be in,’' he said.

The entities with representatives at the meeting with DeSantis and Simpson were: Gulfstream Park in Hallandale Beach, the Sanford-Orlando Kennel Club, Hialeah Park, Ebro Poker Room in Ebro, Calder Casino in Miami Gardens, Wind Creek in Gretna, Fort Pierce Jai-Alai, Palm Beach Kennel Club in West Palm Beach, Isle Casino in Pompano Beach, Tampa Bay Downs in Tampa, Derby Lane in St. Petersburg, Naples-Fort Myers Greyhound Track in Bonita Springs, Magic City Casino in Miami, the Big Easy Casino in Hallandale Beach, and Best Bet of Jacksonville.

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