House gambling bill gets OK as questions remain


TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – A key House committee Tuesday approved a gambling measure aimed at creating a new agreement with the Seminole Tribe, though a tribe representative recently called the proposal a "non-starter" and major differences remain with the Senate.

The proposal (HB 7037) would continue to allow the tribe to have exclusive rights to operate "banked" card games, such as blackjack, at five of its casinos. In exchange, the Seminoles would have to guarantee $3 billion in payments to the state --- earmarked mainly for education --- over seven years.

Despite the House Ways and Means Committee's 11-7 vote in favor of the legislation, the proposed agreement remains troubled.

The Seminoles have objected that it is unlikely the U.S. Department of the Interior, which must sign off on gambling-related agreements between tribes and states, would approve the deal. And the Senate is expected to approve a bill next week that would be much more friendly to the pari-mutuel industry.

Lawmakers are tackling the thorny gambling issue after a federal judge late last year decided that the Seminoles can continue to offer the blackjack games, even though a 2010 agreement giving the tribe the authority to conduct the games expired in 2015.

Rep. Mike La Rosa, a St. Cloud Republican sponsoring the House legislation, called his proposal a "straightforward bill" that provides certainty for the state's gambling industry which "has been in disarray for the past few years."

But critics objected that the proposal gives short shrift to pari-mutuels. The measure would, among other things, ban popular and lucrative "designated player" poker-style games operated by numerous cardrooms throughout the state, an activity at the heart of the legal dispute between the Seminoles and the state.

"The pari-mutuel industry has been a friend to this state. They've helped provide a lot of dollars for a lot of things to happen. They by-and-large are getting treated less well than they deserve for the service they've rendered the state," Rep. Joe Geller, D-Aventura, said.

Rep. Joe Abruzzo, D-Boynton Beach, said lawmakers need a special session to fully address the gambling issue.

"There's no way the Senate is going to remotely take any of this that doesn't have anything … for our existing businesses and pari-mutuels," Abruzzo, a former senator, said.

But Sen. Bill Galvano, a Bradenton Republican shepherding the upper chamber's proposal, was more optimistic.

"It's only week three (of the 60-day legislative session) and at this point I am more focused on the fact that gaming bills are moving than the differences," Galvano, who is slated to take over as Senate president in November 2018, said in a text message late Tuesday.