Major gambling proposal emerges in Senate

Senator's proposal would allow slot machines in 8 voter-approving counties

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – A senator instrumental in the passage of the Legislature's last major gambling bill released a massive proposal Thursday that would allow slot machines in eight counties where voters have approved them, let South Florida pari-mutuels run blackjack games, and give tracks permission to do away with greyhound racing while keeping lucrative cardrooms and slots.

Sen. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, called the bill (SB 8) a starting point as lawmakers gear up to deal with a potential gambling agreement being negotiated by the Seminole Tribe, Gov. Rick Scott's staff and legislative leaders.

"To effectively address an issue like gaming that involves an almost century-old industry and a sovereign within our own borders, it has to be rolled out procedurally correct. The bill that has been filed is comprehensive on the industry side," Galvano told The News Service of Florida. "It really includes most everything that has been discussed of late."

Negotiations with the Seminoles are underway after a portion of a 20-year deal, called a compact, expired in 2015. That portion gave the tribe the exclusive rights to operate "banked" card games such as blackjack.

But a federal judge in November ruled that the Seminoles could continue to offer blackjack because the state had breached the agreement by permitting controversial "designated player" games at pari-mutuel cardrooms. U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle ruled that the designated player games violate a state law prohibiting games in which players bet against the house.

Galvano's soup-to-nuts proposal would make legal the designated player games.

His plan would also allow slots in eight counties where voters have approved them --- a shift away from what lawmakers previously have been willing to authorize and something the Seminoles have opposed. The current compact, signed in 2010, gives the tribe "exclusive" rights to operate slot machines outside of Miami-Dade and Broward counties.

The 2010 compact called for $1 billion in guaranteed payments to the state over five years, and the tribe has exceeded that amount. The money is a combination of revenues the Seminoles earn from slot machines and card games.

"They've been good partners with us, and the funds are substantial. But it's hard to ignore voters in eight counties that are telling us that they not only want these games but they want the revenues and the economic development that come from them," Galvano said. "So when you look at gaming comprehensively, you can't ignore the economic development that comes on the private industry side and simply just look at revenue that comes on the compact side."

Galvano's bill also builds on a proposed agreement struck by Scott and the tribe in late 2015 in which the Seminoles agreed to pay the state $3 billion over seven years in exchange for craps and roulette.

The proposed agreement never went into effect because the Legislature failed to give it the requisite stamp of approval.

Galvano, who is slated to take over as Senate president in 2018, said lawmakers need to decide what kind of gambling policy they want the state to have before making decisions about the types of games the tribe should be allowed to conduct.

"I know that we have to create a new agreement with the tribe. But now we have a basis for them to know what's coming and to negotiate on the components of something, as opposed to sending a compact to us only to have a death by a thousand amendments. That's what I want to avoid," said Galvano, who is reprising his 2010 role as one of the Legislature's chief negotiators with the tribe.

Galvano's 112-page proposal includes elements sought by the state's influential pari-mutuel industry --- such as "decoupling" of dog racing and most horse racing. If decoupling occurs, tracks would not be required to run live races while being able to offer other forms of gambling, such as cardrooms.

The measure also would set up a regulatory structure for “fantasy” sports in Florida, requiring operators to pay an initial $500,000 licensure fee and an annual $100,000 renewal fee.

House Commerce Committee Chairman Jose Felix Diaz, Galvano's counterpart in the gambling negotiations, tweeted a response to the proposal Thursday evening.

"@FLSenate look forward to reviewing this bill and working with @BillGalvano @FLGovScott the FL House and the Tribe on this imprtnt project," Diaz, R-Miami, wrote.

Galvano released his proposal hours after the House Tourism & Gaming Control Subcommittee learned about issues surrounding the compact from a state economist and gambling regulators.

Galvano said he expects the Senate Regulated Industries Committee to take up the measure at its next meeting Jan. 25, as lawmakers prepare for the March 7 start of the annual session. As in previous years, passage of any gambling proposal remains "a heavy lift," Galvano said.

"But here it is, second committee week. We've got a bill out. I'm going to make an effort to see if we can get there," he said.