Slipping Away in Florida

While leaders of the state legislature have different ideas of how to determine if Florida will welcome expanded gaming, the real decision rests with Florida Governor Rick Scott (l.), who is up for re-election this year. Scott, however, is making a new gaming compact with the Seminole tribe a priority and may let casino expansion talks slip to next year.

Leaders of the Florida House and Senate have differing ideas about a constitutional amendment that would let voters decide if they want expanded gambling. House Speaker Will Weatherford wants a statewide vote on any gambling expansion that’s approved by the legislature, which will convene on March 4. Garrett Richter, chairman of the Senate Gaming Committee, said he prefers a constitutional amendment requiring statewide approval for any future gambling expansion.

But Governor Rick Scott, who is up for re-election, may determine the ultimate outcome of expanded-gambling legislation, since it will be up to him to renegotiate a portion of the compact with the Seminole Tribe of Florida—a provision, set to expire in July 2015, that gave the Seminoles the exclusive rights to operate banked card games like blackjack and baccarat for five years. In exchange, the tribe agreed to give the state a minimum $1 billion over five years. The tribe can halt the payments if slot machines are allowed outside of Miami-Dade or Broward counties or reduce the payments if gambling expands within those counties. The tribe also could agree to pay more to the state in exchange for the exclusive rights to other games such as roulette or craps.

Weatherford said in addition to a constitutional amendment requiring a statewide vote on expanded gambling, he also would require Scott to finalize a Seminole compact this year. Scott’s spokesperson Frank Collins said, “Governor Scott is focused on renewing the state’s compact with the Seminoles to get the best deal for Floridians. Other gaming issues, including destination casinos, are being discussed by members of the legislature, but the governor’s immediate focus is the future of the Seminole compact.” Scott did not set a timeline for finalizing a deal with the tribe, even though the legislature only meets for 60 days.

Meanwhile, although Scott previously campaigned as anti-gambling, his “Let’s Get to Work” committee has collected hundreds of thousands of dollars from gaming companies and interests. The Seminole Tribe gave $500,000, one of Scott’s single-largest contributions.

Weatherford said, “Our position’s pretty clear. I respect the governor. If he wants to take the full time to negotiate the compact, we just have to be cognizant and recognize that it precludes us from going forward with the bill. I totally don’t blame him if he wants to take more time to negotiate. We’re not trying to rush that. It’s just that in order to have a holistic conversation about this issue, the compact really has to be a part of it.”

Richter has held numerous hearings about expanded gambling across the state. The input from those meetings, plus recommendations from the Spectrum Gaming Group, which the legislature commissioned to do a comprehensive study on the issue, will be included in the 300-page bill Richter will release next week. The bill will create a gambling commission to regulate activities now overseen by the Department of Business and Professional Regulation, which is under Scott’s control and allow pari-mutuels to continue offering poker and slots while eventually eliminating races.

The bill also will include at least two destination resort casinos, one each in Broward and Miami-Dade, where a recent poll, financed by unnamed casino interests, indicated 56 percent of 400 likely voters would favor a constitutional amendment to allow up to three proposed Las Vegas-style “destination resorts” casinos. The poll showed strong support across party lines.

The poll also showed lawmakers could benefit from voting for expanded gambling; 39 percent said they’d be more likely to vote for a legislator who supported it; 27 percent said they’d be less likely to vote for that candidate; and 20 percent said it would not make a difference.

In the meantime, the Orlando-based anti-gambling group No Casinos recently announced its No Casinos Statesmen’s Council includes three former governors: Democrats Bob Graham and Wayne Mixon and Republican Jeb Bush; and two U.S. Senators,  Graham and current U.S. Senator Bill Nelson. The group also will debut its 30-minute documentary, “Pushing Luck,”  in Orlando. No Casinos’ leader, John Sowinski, said it shows the negative impact of gambling in Las Vegas and Atlantic City. “There’s an awful lot we in Florida have at stake and that’s why we’ll keep pushing things out and working hard against it. We’re ramping up in the hopes of raising public awareness so that people know they call on their legislators to stop these gambling interests in their tracks that want to bring gambling to Florida,” Sowinski said.