Florida Lawmakers Consider Seminoles, Genting

Florida legislators have a lot on their plate for the upcoming session. Allowing destination resorts could threaten the Seminole compact, which brings Florida $1 billion over five years. Lawmakers also are taking a stand on Genting Resort World's proposal to open a slots-only casino in Miami, where the company had planned a $3 billion casino (l.) just last year.

When Florida lawmakers begin considering expanded gambling in March, they’ll also have to weigh the pros and cons of renewing the Seminole Compact. Signed in April 2010 and set to expire in mid-2015, the compact allows the tribe to offer slots at its seven facilities throughout the state and blackjack and other card games at five of those. In return, the state receives a minimum of billion from the tribe’s card-game income over five years. The payment to the state for 2013-14 will be 6 million; local governments will receive million.

The compact also allows the Seminoles to stop paying if slot machines are allowed outside of Broward or Miami-Dade counties, except on tribal lands. However, the agreement would permit the tribe to reduce its payments to the state if slot machines are allowed at any facilities that weren’t already operating in Broward or Miami-Dade, except for Hialeah Race Track, when the deal was inked in 2010.

Seminole spokesman Gary Bitner said the tribe would not comment on the compact renewal. However, in October he said the tribe had “worked for two decades to secure a gaming compact with the state of Florida that provided a more stable future for the tribe and allowed for significant sharing of gaming revenue with the state. The tribe wants to maintain that steady, stable course through 2015 and beyond.”

Governor Rick Scott’s office has been noncommittal on the issue. His communication director, Melissa Sellers, said, “With the gaming compact set to expire in 2015, we will take the time needed to negotiate the best arrangement for Florida.”

Katie Betta, spokeswoman for Senate President Don Gaetz, said the Senate Gaming Committee “is studying the Seminole Compact as part of their comprehensive review of current gaming in Florida.” She noted the card-game provision of the compact was one reason Gaetz formed a special committee to address gambling and “develop a comprehensive, statewide policy.”

Gaetz’s colleague, state Senator Gwen Margolis, brought up the Seminole compact in a letter she recently wrote to him. Margolis asked Gaetz to join her in opposing Genting Resorts World’s plan to use a gambling permit owned by a nonprofit linked to Gulfstream Racetrack, where the horse races would continue to run, while Resorts World would operate a 2,000 slots-only casino and off-track betting at the former Miami Herald building. Genting bought the property in 2011. Besides profits for Genting and Gulfstream, proceeds would go to Gulfstream’s racing purses and to aid horse breeders’ organizations.

Margolis wrote, if that deal goes through, “it might adversely impact our revenues from the compact with the Seminole Tribe of Florida” She noted “gambling activity would be allowed in an area never contemplated by the voting public at the center of an arts district, with two performing arts centers, two museums and the American Airlines Arena, all within two city blocks. Biscayne Boulevard experiences severe traffic congestion already, and slot machines are not compatible with the cultural climate of the area.”

Margolis added, “When we gave the ability to have slot machines to the parimutuels, it was because they complained they were hurting. Now everybody wants to have a different kind of deal. And the result of it is opening casinos all over the place by moving slot machines to some other area. That’s something that will get out of control. You can’t allow that to happen.”

State Rep. Jim Waldman, president of the National Council of Legislators of Gaming States, noted, “That fact that the news of the deal came out” from Genting and Gulfstream, not the state, “shows the legislature needs to take the lead on this. I’m not opposed to destination casinos, but we would be doing a disservice to the pari-mutuels and everyone to not deal with it.”

Other legislators have said if Gulfstream could simply move its permit to downtown Miami, then other casino interests, such as the Hollywood Diplomat, the Fontainebleau and the parent company of the Florida Panthers in Sunrise, also could open casinos simply by buying a permit from a parimutuel.

John Sowinski, president of No Casinos, an anti-expanded gambling group, said, “This is not what voters approved. Not only do we oppose it but we think it’s an affront to the voters of Florida. It’s sort of a give an inch, take a mile routine.” John Brunetti, owner of Hialeah Park, added that Genting “couldn’t get in through the front door so they’re trying the back door.

Gulfstream is playing with the wrong people, while Genting is throwing a few bones to the horsemen and a few more bones to everyone else to get them on their side,” Brunetti said.

In response, Gulfstream President Tim Ritvo said, “We understand that other facilities would oppose it. No one likes more competition.” Ritvo said the Genting-Gulfstream agreement is “the single most important thing that’s happened to thoroughbred racing in a long time. This will benefit the entire racing industry.” Genting’s Christian Goode said the partnership with Gulfstream “is just one opportunity or potential opportunity. If it’s not viable, then we’ll pursue other means.”

Genting originally hoped to build a $3 billion casino resort hotel but put those plans on hold when lawmakers in 2012 did not pass legislation to allow three destination hotel-casinos in South Florida.

State regulators must first approve the project. But officials say the gaming permit only is valid for Broward County, not Miami-Dade. Also, the permit only is valid for slots where racing takes place.

Resorts World lobbyist Brian Ballard said lawmakers need not worry about losing the Seminole payments. “Genting is prepared to work with the state to make sure the state suffers no impact. This is manageable and we want to work with the state to figure out the most equitable outcome.” Ballard added, “I would argue that having more than one large payer in South Florida is probably good for the people of Florida. It lowers risk. I wouldn’t want to have one client as a law firm or lobbying firm because if the market changes for that client, you could have a real bad day.”

The Seminole compact is not the only issue facing Florida legislators regarding the state’s gambling laws. Gaetz and House Speaker Will Weatherford both are pushing a constitutional amendment for the November general-election ballot that would require voters to have a say on expanded gambling in the future. Gaetz has said voters in his Panhandle district should have a voice regarding destination resorts. “You can make an argument that that’s a systemic change that the people of Florida ought to have a say about,” he said. Weatherford stated, “I think we have seen gaming creep. The legislature has not had its hands on the wheel when it comes the gaming laws of the state of Florida. The idea I’m warming up to, which I think makes a lot of sense, is to give the power back to the people when it comes to gaming expansion.”

Legislators also may consider measures that would:

• Create a more powerful gaming commission

• Reform gaming regulations

• Change the parimutuel industry’s model that pit gamblers against each other

• Set new gaming revenue tax rates.

Summing it all up, Resorts World lobbyist Ballard said, “This is the year to try to get things done. This is the first time since the Lottery was voted on in 1986 that legislative leaders are looking at a massive rewrite.”

In the short term, eyes are on Dania Jai-Alai in South Florida, which is about to open its casino, adding 550 slots and 11 poker tables. A group of Argentine investors purchased the property in May from Boyd Gaming for $65.5 million. Located 25 minutes from Isle’s Pompano Park and Calder Casino, the addition of gaming at Dania will add to the double-digit growth of the South Florida racino market this year. Much of that is due to the state ban on internet cafes last April and improvement in the South Florida economy.