93ºF

Competing gambling proposals in play

photo

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Lawmakers’ attempts to reach consensus on sweeping gambling proposals have been perennially fruitless endeavors, with industry players seeking not only to promote their own agendas but to block competitors from gaining even a perceived advantage.

The complicated gambling issue was supposed to be off the table this legislative session, but a looming constitutional amendment on the November ballot has sparked a flurry of talks between House and Senate leaders on what could be the Legislature’s final opportunity to craft its own gambling footprint for the state.

But a proposal that satisfies the Seminole Tribe of Florida, horse and dog tracks that have slots and others that want the lucrative machines, the rest of the pari-mutuel industry, federal gambling regulators and traditionally gambling-leery state House members remains elusive.

“I think skeptical’s a good word for it. But it’s still important that we do what we can to ensure that we don’t find ourselves in November with no authority and no revenue share,” Sen. Bill Galvano, a Bradenton Republican who has been a major player on gambling-related legislation for years, told The News Service of Florida on Tuesday.

Galvano, who will take over as Senate president following the November elections, spoke after a House panel approved a proposal that would give Seminole casinos the ability to continue conducting blackjack for two more decades.

The House plan (PCB TGC 18-01) also includes a divisive element that would ban the state’s cardroom operators from offering popular and lucrative “designated player” games. Adding to the legislative controversy, the bill includes a sweetener for House Speaker Richard Corcoran by steering billions of dollars from a revenue-sharing agreement with the tribe to education programs favored by the Land O’ Lakes Republican.

“That bill won’t work in the Senate. It won’t work,” Galvano said.

In contrast, a key Senate committee recently advanced a plan (SB 840) that would make clear that designated player games and fantasy sports contests are legal in Florida, something the Seminoles argue could jeopardize a 20-year agreement between the state and the tribe. The Senate proposal would allow dog and horse tracks to do away with racing but keep operating more-lucrative activities such as slots and cardrooms, a plan known as “decoupling.”

The House measure would ban decoupling and effectively re-authorize the 2010 agreement between the state and the Seminoles that gave the tribe exclusive rights to operate “banked” card games, such as blackjack, at most of its casinos, in exchange for about $250 million a year. The portion of the agreement dealing with banked cards expired in 2015 and was the subject of a federal lawsuit that resulted in a settlement between Gov. Rick Scott and the Seminoles.

After a federal judge sided with the tribe in a dispute over whether designated player games breached the Seminoles’ exclusivity over banked card games, the Seminoles agreed to continue make payments to the state, and gambling regulators promised to “aggressively enforce” the manner in which cardrooms conduct the designated player games.

Jamie Shelton, president of bestbet Jacksonville, disputed what he called a perception that the House bill would maintain the status quo in the state’s gambling arena.

“Be very clear. This bill strips away designated player games from our facility in Jacksonville and Orange Park,” Shelton told the House Tourism & Gaming Control Subcommittee, which approved the House bill Tuesday.

The designated player games are currently legal in Florida, Shelton argued.

“They have been vetted. They have been tried in court … and it has been ruled that the games are legal as they are being played today,” Shelton said. “There’s no further action needed.”

More than 100 of Shelton’s employees will be out of work if the House measure passes, the gambling executive warned.

Galvano is among the lawmakers who feel increased pressure to pass legislation before the session ends on March 9, after the “Voter Control of Gambling Amendment” made it onto the November ballot after meeting petition requirements this month. If approved, the proposed constitutional amendment, largely bankrolled by a Disney company and the Seminole Tribe, would require voter approval for any proposed form of casino gambling, an issue now largely controlled by the Legislature.

Addressing the designated player games is among the most critical issues facing lawmakers before voters cast ballots on the proposed constitutional amendment, Galvano said Tuesday.

The issue “is vital to the pari-mutuel community,” Galvano said.

“The entire settlement the governor entered into with the tribe hinges on a resolution of that issue, or a complete cessation of designated player games, which in turn impacts the revenue share the state gets from the tribe. And we’re talking $250-plus million,” he said.

House Tourism & Gaming Control Chairman Mike La Rosa said he believes the games should be outlawed.

“Can we have more discussion about it? Potentially. But right now, we’ve taken a hard line saying, hey, these are illegal. I think it clarifies it for everybody,” La Rosa, R-St. Cloud, told reporters after the panel’s 9-6 vote Tuesday in favor of the House bill.

House Minority Leader Janet Cruz, D-Tampa, complained that House leaders spoiled the proposal by including a provision that would steer revenues from the tribe --- $3 billion over seven years --- to two controversial education programs backed by Corcoran.

The proposal would earmark $1 billion for the “Best and Brightest” program that involves teacher recruitment and retention bonuses and another $1 billion would go to the “schools of hope” program, which would add charter schools in areas served by low-performing traditional public schools. It also includes another $1 billion would go to higher education institutions to recruit and retain distinguished faculty.

The Best and Brightest and “schools of hope” programs, pushed by Corcoran and other House Republican leaders, have been highly controversial.

“The inequity here is outrageous to me. That’s why we see this bill moving forward. So that we can push $1 billion toward the ‘schools of hope.’ It’s $1 billion that goes away from our best and brightest and away from our public schools,” Cruz said.

Although the two chambers remain divided on their approaches to the traditionally thorny gambling issue, the fact that the House is advancing a plan at all could be construed as a plus, Galvano said.

“On the positive side, the House is still open to a gaming discussion because they’re putting a bill out there that they know the Senate won’t take up and pass. So it’s either a perfunctory exercise or there’s hope for discussion,” Galvano said.