TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - Unable to overcome an impasse on slot machines, House and Senate leaders Tuesday called off negotiations on a sweeping gambling measure, acknowledging that the effort is dead for the 2017 legislative session.
The leaders were attempting to strike a compromise centered on an agreement, called a compact, with the Seminole Tribe and to resolve a series of gambling-related court decisions affecting the deal with the tribe.
But Sen. Bill Galvano, the Senate's chief negotiator on the gambling issue, and his House counterpart, Rep. Jose Felix Diaz, were unable to reach consensus on whether to allow slots at pari-mutuels in counties where voters have approved the machines.
Including slots for the eight referendum counties --- Brevard, Duval, Gadsden, Hamilton, Lee, Palm Beach, St. Lucie and Washington --- in the gambling package was a priority for Senate President Joe Negron, but House Speaker Richard Corcoran balked at the notion.
“Gaming will not happen,” Galvano, a Bradenton Republican set to take over as Senate president late next year, said in a text message early Tuesday afternoon, three days before the scheduled end of the session.
Lawmakers' failure to pass a gambling package mirrors similar futile efforts in previous years.
But, unlike in the past, both chambers passed separate gambling proposals, setting up talks between Galvano and Diaz.
Just last week, Galvano and Diaz achieved some success in bringing into alignment the House's status-quo gambling proposal, which would have essentially re-inked a 20-year compact with the Seminoles, and the Senate's more pari-mutuel industry friendly measure (SB 8).
But the negotiators could not bridge the gap over the slot machines.
“We just couldn't get it across the finish line. We were too far apart, and the Senate wanted to bring it in for a landing during budget conference, and we were not going to be able to do that,” Diaz, R-Miami, told reporters late Tuesday afternoon. “The referendum counties was the big divide.”
Galvano and the Senate were eager to seal a deal before the Florida Supreme Court rules in a case focused on whether pari-mutuels can add slots if voters approved them, even without the express permission of the Legislature.
“We have to address that component of gaming in the state of Florida or we'll still be in a state of jeopardy going into the summer and going forward, even if we had a bill. The Senate was prepared to address it, and recognizes that the voters in those counties had sought expansion. We would have worked on ending the court litigation with regard to those counties, and the House did not want to address that issue and saw it as an expansion (of gambling),” Galvano, R-Bradenton, told The News Service of Florida.
Negron, R-Stuart, had insisted that the counties where voters expressed a desire for slots be included in the gambling proposal.
“I believe strongly that their will should be acknowledged and accepted by all of us,” he said during a floor session after announcing the gambling impasse could not be resolved.
Corcoran, R-Land O' Lakes, told reporters that lawmakers made “a great effort” to pass a bill.
Industry lobbyists appeared grim as news of the demise of the gambling bill spread throughout the fourth floor outside the House and Senate chambers.
“We thought this was going to be the year, as opposed to the other years where we've come close. This one went much further along but unfortunately, as we've seen the last several years, the two sides were unable to reach an agreement,” said lobbyist Nick Iarossi, who represents pari-mutuel facilities in Melbourne and Jacksonville that want to add slots.
With a number of unresolved gambling-related court issues --- as well as a potential $3 billion deal with the Seminoles --- still on the table, talk inside the Capitol turned to the possibility of a special session later this summer on the issue.
“We could have a series of bad court decisions that can result in a major reduction in the revenue share that we enjoy from the tribe. Does that mean we'll have a special session on it? I don't know,” Galvano said.
A Supreme Court ruling in favor of Gretna Racing, a small horsetrack in Gadsden County, could mean that pari-mutuels in all of the eight counties would be able to add up to 2,000 slot machines to their operations, something that would undo a revenue-sharing agreement with the Seminoles that's part of the 2010 compact.
Addressing a court decision “after the fact” is “always a dubious position to be in,” said Galvano, a lawyer who helped craft a 2010 agreement with the Seminoles, adding that was why he wanted to include the referendum counties in the gambling proposal before the court rules on the slots counties.
“I wouldn't be surprised if the court was waiting to see what came out of session before addressing it,” he said.
The gambling proposals under consideration would have allowed the Seminoles to add craps and roulette --- something they have sought --- and to keep “exclusive” rights to offer banked card games, such as blackjack.
A provision in the 2010 compact allowing the tribe to have banked card games expired in 2015, but the Seminoles accused the state of breaching the exclusivity agreement by allowing controversial “designated player” games at pari-mutuel cardrooms. A federal judge sided with the Seminoles in the lawsuit last year, but the state has appealed.
Asked whether the legislature's failure to pass a gambling bill weakens the state's position to negotiate with the tribe over a future compact, Diaz said there are no negotiations ongoing.
“We're not any weaker or stronger. We just are nowhere. That's the unfortunate reality that we find ourselves in,” he said.
News Service of Florida