TALLAHASSEE (CBSMiami/NSF) – Legalized gambling has become a big part of gaming in the state of Florida.
In opening salvos fired Thursday, lawmakers gave preliminary approval to diametrically opposed proposals that would either vastly expand the state's gambling footprint with a Senate-backed plan or essentially maintain the status quo with a measure endorsed by House leaders.
The overwhelming endorsement of the House and Senate plans by key committees teed up the gambling issue in advance of the legislative session that begins March 7 and sets the stage for critical negotiations between the two chambers, Gov. Rick Scott's administration and the Seminole Tribe of Florida.
Unlike in previous years, the bills are moving early in the process, receiving critical votes before the session begins --- something legislative leaders are quick to point out.
The legislative action comes against the backdrop of two crucial court cases that could dramatically affect how lawmakers treat the thorny gambling question, a seemingly perennial issue dominated by one of the state's most powerful industries.
But the vastly different approaches, and a lack of a sense of urgency on the part of the House, keep the chances of a successful outcome a crapshoot.
"I'm not 100 percent sure where the middle ground's going to end up, but I can tell you if it comes down to expanding gaming, that's going to be a non-starter in the House," House Tourism & Gaming Control Chairman Mike La Rosa, R-St. Cloud, said.
The House plan centers on cementing a new agreement, called a "compact," with the Seminoles, who last year won a federal court decision regarding a 2010 agreement with the state that gave the tribe "exclusive" rights to operate banked card games, such as blackjack, at most of its casinos.
The House proposal would steer the bulk of the revenue from the new compact toward education, a potential sweetener for Scott and the Senate.
The Senate's industry-friendly proposal, meanwhile, includes a variety of factors --- including an expansion of slot machines and blackjack at pari-mutuels --- that the House, at least for now, maintains are off-limits.
Sen. Bill Galvano, the Senate's chief gambling negotiator who also was instrumental in crafting the 2010 deal with the tribe, likened the current situation to the three-way stand-off in the finale of the classic Western movie, "The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly."
"The House has a product out there. There was a time the tribe was waiting to see where each chamber was. But now we know," Galvano, a Bradenton Republican slated to take over as Senate president after the 2018 elections, told reporters after Thursday's meeting of the Senate Appropriations Committee. "It's time to reel it in."
The Appropriations Committee voted 14-2 to approve the Senate bill (SB 8), while the House Tourism & Gaming Control Subcommittee voted 10-5 to approve the House measure (PCB TGC 17-01).
The Senate proposal would allow slots in eight counties --- Brevard, Duval, Gadsden, Hamilton, Lee, Palm Beach, St. Lucie and Washington --- where voters have approved them and would allow pari-mutuel "racinos" in Miami-Dade and Broward, which already have slot machines, to add a limited number of blackjack tables. The approach would resolve a lawsuit now pending before the Florida Supreme Court focused on whether pari-mutuels can add slots without the express say-so of the Legislature.
In an element added to the Senate plan during Thursday's Appropriations Committee vetting, the eight pari-mutuels allowed to add the slots --- and possibly others --- would pledge to pay the state a cumulative minimum of $250 million a year, starting in 2018.
The Senate plan also would incorporate at least part of a proposed agreement struck in 2015 between Scott and the tribe in which the Seminoles guaranteed $3 billion in payments over seven years. The Senate plan would require the tribe to pay the same amount of money and, like the proposed 2015 agreement, give the Seminoles the ability to add craps and roulette.
But unlike the 2015 deal, which never went into effect because it failed to get authorization from the Legislature, the Senate's plan includes expanding the operation of slot machines outside of South Florida and would make legal controversial games --- known as "designated player" card games --- that are at the heart of a legal dispute between the tribe and the state.
In contrast, the House plan would not allow the expansion of slots outside of Miami-Dade and Broward and would not give the tribe the ability to add new games.
State compacts with Indian tribes require approval from the federal Department of the Interior. The revenue-sharing agreements are evaluated based on the value of the exclusivity guaranteed to the tribes.
A $3 billion, seven-year proposal would replace the $1 billion guaranteed over five years included in the 2010 plan.
Federal approval of the Senate plan in its current form is unlikely, said Barry Richard, the tribe's attorney.
"Not if it increases the amount that the tribe is paying, increases the competition and decreases exclusivity. I don't think that passes muster with the Department of the Interior," Richard told The News Service of Florida on Thursday. "The Department of the Interior doesn't rubber stamp these things. And they're tough."
Galvano said the chambers' divergent measures would encourage negotiations to move forward, and called on the Seminoles to make the next move.
"Very first thing is, tell us, based on this bill, what you'll pay. What's the number? And then we'll look at that number, and if there's a necessity to adjust that number one way or the other, I think it's incumbent upon the tribe or the House to show us that," he said.
But Richard, the tribe's lawyer, said the Senate's current plan also doesn't make "economic sense" for the Seminoles.
"I don't see how it's going to pass anyway. There's the problem. I don't see how the two chambers are going to get together. Sen. Galvano is a very smart guy. … He knows more than anybody else about the compact and Indian gaming law. So I have to assume that there's some negotiating plan in this," he said.
Speaking to reporters Thursday afternoon, House Speaker Richard Corcoran said he is focused on providing "longevity and stability" to the gambling industry as a whole and in crafting the state's gambling policy.
"The House has always been very conservative in what this looks like," Corcoran, R-Land O' Lakes said.
In an interview with The News Service of Florida last week, Senate President Joe Negron said he will not allow the gambling legislation to dangle throughout the 60-day session.
"At some point, we're either going to pass a gaming bill or we're not going to pass a gaming bill. I'm not going to let the issue hang around until week eight (of the session), string people along and then somebody puts yellow tape around it and declares a time of death. We are moving forward in good faith," Negron, R-Stuart, said.
The News Service of Florida's Dara Kam contributed to this report.
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