Sweeping Changes in Florida Unlikely In Election Year

Florida Senate Gaming Committee Chairman Garrett Richter said although legislators are drafting expanded gambling bills, the political realities of an election year mean a modest loophole-tightening measure is most likely to get passed this year. Governor Rick Scott (l.) has been noticeably noncommittal on the issue.

Facing the realities of election-year politics, Florida legislators are feeling pressure to put off until next year sweeping reform of the state’s gambling laws. State Senate Gaming Committee Chairman Garrett Richter said, “If an election year has any influence, it could influence the magnitude of what’s undertaken.” Recently Richter suggested a modest bill that tightens loopholes could get passed this year, and all the other considerations could wait until 2015. “At a minimum, we have a patchwork of regulations that have developed over the years. We are combing through these statutes to eliminate the duplicities and ambiguities,” he said. On the other hand, it’s possible “there could be an appetite to develop the framework for a gaming commission. Maybe. Maybe not.”

Meanwhile Richter and Senate leaders are drafting a bill that could allow a destination resort casino, expanded electronic slot machines outside of Miami-Dade and Broward and less live racing. House leaders, however, said they only will support a gambling bill if it includes a constitutional amendment requiring a statewide referendum for any future change in gambling laws.

Where Governor Rick Scott stands, no one is certain. When he recently was asked about a proposal by Genting Group to open a slots-only casino in Miami using Gulfstream Park’s gaming license, Scott said, “I know that the legislature’s going to be looking at gaming. And I look forward to working with the legislature on any issue like that.”

A major issue is the Seminole compact, which was negotiated by Crist. It gave the tribe a monopoly to operate slots at their five casinos outside Miami-Dade and Broward counties. It also allowed them to offer blackjack and baccarat at the Hard Rock Casino in Tampa and six other casinos. In return, the tribe agreed to make annual payments to the state totaling at least $1 billion between 2010 and 2015.

The provision that gives the tribe the exclusive right to blackjack and other table games will expire in August 2015. Only the governor is authorized to negotiate it. If Scott does that his year, it could become a campaign issue and he could be associated with expanded gambling, which is unpopular in certain areas of Florida. If he waits until after the election to negotiate the compact, Scott runs the risk that the Seminoles could send some of their billions in profits to Crist as political contributions.

Former state Senator Steve Geller, now working to elect Governor Charlie Crist, now a Democrat running against Scott, said Scott and Republicans are under pressure to resolve the issues now, “while they still control everything.” But, Geller said, probably nothing will happen since “a lot of Republicans may want to be in a position where they can raise money from the gambling entities in the 2014 general election by not resolving it.”

The money already is rolling in toward the election, with Scott’s political committee receiving $500,000 from the Seminole Tribe in the past few months and $250,000 from Sheldon Adelson, billionaire owner of Las Vegas Sands, in July. The political committees of Florida legislators, who will control the debate, also are receiving contributions.

Also in Florida, troubles keep adding up for Genting’s Bimini SuperFast ship, which was launched last July. The ship took gamblers to international waters and to Genting’s new casino in the small Bahaman island. One problem was the ferry could not tie up to the casino dock due to shallow waters, so passengers had to be shuttled to the island. Also, Genting’s construction of a pier in Bimini has been delayed and now is being criticized by environmentalists.

In addition, the corporation said it would suffer “incalculable” losses if the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency continues to ban the use of foreign labor on overnight trips on the SuperFast ship. Genting filed suit last November in U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C. to resume the overnight trips. Recently a federal judge asked lawyers for Genting and the CBP to clarify their arguments.

Genting said the SuperFast ship operates under the same provision in maritime law that allows Miami-based ships to employ thousands of low-wage foreign workers for cruises that stop at ports in other countries. Immigration officials said “cruises to nowhere” do not qualify because the passengers never set foot on foreign soil. According to court documents, U.S. officials told Genting it could hire U.S. workers and resume the overnight trips. The documents noted: “Plaintiffs have come to the Court asking it save them from a series of bad business decisions. Plaintiffs still possess multiple courses of action that would help them avoid any potential harm to their parent company’s $39 billion market capitalization.”

Meanwhile, in the first six months of the 2013-2014 fiscal year, casinos and racinos in Florida generated more than $239 million in net slot revenue, not including tribal gaming. As a result the state will earn an additional $83.6 million in tax dollars, a 20 per cent increase over last year. At this rate the next six months should deliver a total over $180 million in tax earnings. One significant factor in the increase is the new Hialeah casino which brought in $22 million during its first five months of operation.

The 25-year-old Florida Lottery projects $5.1 billion for the current fiscal year, another record, which would provide an additional $1.43 billion for public education.