Bill that attempts to freeze gambling in Florida advances in House

Pictured is the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Tampa's new state-of-the-art poker room on Thursday, January 12, 2017. The non-smoking poker room features 46 tables, 40 TV sets, and a drinks and snacks bar.
Pictured is the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Tampa's new state-of-the-art poker room on Thursday, January 12, 2017. The non-smoking poker room features 46 tables, 40 TV sets, and a drinks and snacks bar.
Published March 21, 2017

TALLAHASSEE — A bill that attempts to lock Florida's gambling footprint in place for 20 years — and ice out any casino expansion — passed a key House committee along a party line vote Tuesday leaving the Legislature miles apart over how to resolve the lucrative gambling compact with the Seminole Tribe.

The House bill, HB 7037, authorizes Gov. Rick Scott to renew the existing compact with the tribe, which runs two Hard Rock Casinos in Hollywood and Tampa and four other casinos in Florida. But instead of leaving the revenue sharing where it is, the House increases the minimum guarantee 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.

For the first time, the House also directs the Legislature to put the money into three specific education programs aimed at retaining and recruiting teachers, helping children in failing schools and enhancing higher education.

Rep. Michael LaRosa, R-St. Cloud, chair of the Tourism & Gaming Control Subcommittee that sponsored the bill said the House's "status quo" proposal also closes loopholes that have allowed player-banked card games to be run in poker rooms, reduces dormant parimutuel permits and repeals old provisions that could be used for unintended gaming expansion in the future.

"The bill provides much needed certainty and predictability for years to come," he said.

Less uncertain is the bill's fate. It passed on a 11-7 vote, with Democrats opposed, but there is no sign that the House and Senate are close to a compromise.

The related Senate bill, SB 8, goes beyond the status quo to dramatically expand gaming in Florida by giving Miami-Dade and Broward counties each an additional slot casino, allowing the Seminole Tribe to operate seven full-scale casinos, and giving horse and dog tracks in at least eight counties new slot parlors.

The tribe has indicated that neither the House nor Senate gaming bills is enough to justify its paying the state more in revenue sharing.

In a letter to Scott, Senate President Joe Negron and House Speaker Richard Corcoran, Marcellus Osceola, chairman of the Tribal Council, said both chambers ask the tribe to pay the state more money while shrinking its monopoly over some games.

"Unfortunately, both the Senate and House bills would require dramatic increases in the Tribe's payments without providing increases in the Tribe's exclusivity sufficient to justify those higher payments," Osceola wrote.

LaRosa said that while the letter stalled progress, discussions continue.

Sen. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, told the Times/Herald last week that the Senate has had meetings with the tribe's representatives and he expects to propose some changes to the Senate bill, which is now scheduled for a floor vote. But neither he nor Rep. Jose Felix Diaz, R-Miami, chairman of the House Commerce Committee, expect any progress on a compromise anytime soon.

The House bill has the rare 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 track that must compete with the tribe more gaming options.

Rep. Joe Geller, D-Aventura, said that the prospect that the gambling revenue could be used to finance charter schools was "kind of a poison pill for many of us."

Despite the enormous opposition to the House bill by parimutuel groups, no one spoke up about it. Rep. Joe Abruzzo, D-West Palm Beach, said that is because the industry "just wants anything to move past our committee processes so we can get to conferencing and everything can get negotiated and changed."

The bottom line, he said: "Let's move it and later on we'll deal with it."

Contact Mary Ellen Klas at Follow @MaryEllenKlas