TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Florida could soon become home to more casinos and hundreds of more slot machines under a sweeping gambling bill that was easily passed Thursday by the state Senate.
But the idea of transforming parts of the Sunshine State into a humid version of Las Vegas is a bust so far with the Republican-controlled Florida House. The House is expected to vote next week on its bill that would instead "freeze" all gambling at what is currently allowed.
The question is then whether or not legislative leaders can craft some sort of compromise in the five weeks that remain in the annual session, or have yet another stalemate over the future of gambling. Legislators have tried for several years to piece together a rewrite of the state's gambling laws but they have usually fallen apart amid a heavy lobbying effort from those in the gambling industry.
"It's a heavy, heavy lift," said House Speaker Richard Corcoran.
Gambling is supposed to be "illegal" in Florida, but really isn't. There's plenty of it around the state, often tucked away from theme parks and beaches in locations known mostly to locals and retirees who flock to Florida each winter.
While the state lacks high-end casinos like Las Vegas, the Seminole Tribe operates several casinos, including Hard Rock hotels and casinos in Tampa and Hollywood. Dog and horse tracks are scattered statewide, but only those in south Florida have been permitted to install slot machines, while only the tribe is authorized to offer blackjack. The state makes money off gambling, and has been paid nearly $2 billion since 2010 from the tribe.
The Senate bill (SB 8) would change all that. It would allow slot machines at dog and horse tracks and poker rooms in Duval and seven other counties outside of South Florida where local voters have approved referendums. The Senate gambling bill would also allow the Seminole Tribe to offer craps and roulette at its casinos and it would allow South Florida tracks to add blackjack. It also would create a pathway for an additional casino in Broward and Miami-Dade counties.
The Senate bill passed by a 32-6 vote with no debate. Sen. Bill Galvano, the Bradenton Republican and sponsor of the bill, said the legislation is needed to address ongoing lawsuits and disputes that have threatened to upend the state's gambling landscape.
In one pending case, the Florida Supreme Court could allow dog and horse tracks in eight counties stretching from southwest Florida to the Panhandle to add slot machines. Another legal battle pits the Seminoles against the state. Seven years ago the state reached an exclusive deal to let the tribe offer blackjack at many of its Florida casinos, but that provision expired in 2015. State officials have argued the tribe must stop offering blackjack, but the tribe sued and won the first round in court.
"Everybody realizes that inaction is not working," Galvano said. "We have this ambiguous unpredictable state of flux out there."
The House bill, which moved through its final committee stop on Thursday as well, moves in an opposite direction from the Senate legislation. It would allow the tribe to keep its slot machines and blackjack tables for 20 years, but it would not allow them to add additional games. The legislation would also make it clear that slot machines would be confined to tribal-run casinos and tracks in South Florida.
One wild-card in the pending negotiations between the House and Senate is the Seminole Tribe. So far, the tribe has come out in opposition to both bills. Tribe officials have told legislators that both bills demand higher payments from the tribe without providing any additional value, which could run afoul of federal law.