TALLAHASSE, Fla. – Despite the looming threat of a constitutional amendment and a potential $300 million annual hit to state coffers, Florida lawmakers abandoned an effort to reach agreement Friday on a gambling package as time ran out in the 2018 legislative session.
Republican legislative leaders had resurrected the issue in the waning days of the session as they tried to strike a deal between the gambling-leery House and the Senate, which was willing to expand slot machines to counties where voters have approved the lucrative machines.
But after a day of horse-trading, House Speaker Richard Corcoran and Senate President Joe Negron declared the issue off the table.
“Despite the good faith efforts of both the House and Senate, a gaming bill will not pass the Legislature this session,” the leaders said in a statement Friday evening. “Gaming remains one of the most difficult issues we face as a Legislature. We are pleased with the progress made over the last week and know that our colleagues will continue to work on this important issue.”
Lawmakers were anxious to address the perennially elusive issue due to a constitutional amendment on the November ballot that would give voters control of future gambling decisions, something now largely left up to the Legislature.
Also, legislators wanted to ensure a steady stream of income from the Seminole Tribe of Florida. The money could be in peril after a federal court ruling about controversial “designated player” games at pari-mutuel cardrooms throughout the state.
The Senate this week passed a broad gambling measure allowing slots in eight counties --- Brevard, Duval, Gadsden, Hamilton, Lee, Palm Beach, St. Lucie and Washington --- where voters have signed off on letting local pari-mutuels add the lucrative machines.
The House made a concession Thursday evening to the Senate, by agreeing to allow slots in three counties where voters have approved them. But after two subsequent offers, the negotiators appeared to grow farther apart.
“I think it was time, more than anything else,” Sen. Bill Galvano, a Bradenton Republican who has been instrumental in crafting and passing gambling legislation for years, told The News Service of Florida on Friday evening.
Although lawmakers were supposed to wrap up their business Friday night, Corcoran and Negron have extended the session until 11:59 p.m. Sunday after running out of time to finalize work on a new state budget.
The leaders would have had to include the sticky gambling issue in the extension if the negotiations appeared to be closing in on a deal.
“We spent so much time, and rightfully so, on the school-safety legislation, and we found ourselves on a Friday, with a Sunday deadline if we had extended, and the tribe’s not up here,” Galvano said, referring to school-safety legislation stemming from the Feb. 14 mass shooting at a Broward County high school.
Striking a new deal, called a compact, with the Seminoles, which would be part of any gambling legislation, has proved elusive for legislators.
One of the critical provisions of a 2010 deal between the state and tribe, giving the tribe “exclusivity” over banked card games, such as blackjack, expired in 2015. That spawned a protracted legal battle and previously futile attempts by lawmakers to seal a new agreement.
The tribe pays more than $300 million a year under the banked-card games portion of the 2010 agreement.
But the legal battle focused heavily on what are known as “designated player games,” which are played at pari-mutuel facilities.
After a federal judge sided with the tribe in a dispute over whether the lucrative designated-player games breached the Seminoles’ exclusivity over offering banked card games, the tribe agreed to continue making payments to the state, and gambling regulators promised to “aggressively enforce” the manner in which cardrooms conduct the designated player games.
While the tribe agreed to temporarily continue paying the state, some lawmakers are eager for the financial certainty a new compact would provide.
But Galvano said he has spoken with a representative of the tribe, who assured him that the Seminoles intend to maintain the revenue-sharing agreement with the state.
“They’ve made no plans to stop payment, and they still want to be partners with the state. But they weren’t prepared to come up here and negotiate a deal. I’ve been through this before and it’s just logistically not workable,” he said.