Gambling Dead at Florida Legislature but Will Be Stronger Next Year

Maybe next year?EXPAND
Maybe next year?
Photo by Nick Sortal

The Florida legislative session concluded last week – and again, gambling regulation failed. So now, casino executives’ focus turns to a Florida Supreme Court case in July that could shape the state’s landscape.

If plaintiff Gretna Racing, based way up in northwestern Florida, wins its argument that it has the right to offer slot machines because voters approved them in a referendum, then five other counties stand to also add slots, via a similar argument. If Gretna wins, the Seminoles' hopes for a monopoly on slot machines outside of South Florida goes out the window with the compact negotiated between Gov. Rick Scott and the tribe. That plan stalled in the Legislature. They’ll have to start over. Waiting on that Gretna case caused foot-dragging in this year’s legislative session, says Steve Geller, a former Florida state senator and former president of the National Council of Legislators from Gaming States.

“I think next year, more likely than not, if the Supreme Court rules by fall on the Gretna case, then you have the conditions for a compact,” Geller said.

Meanwhile, blackjack, baccarat, and other table games continue at the five Seminole properties outlined in a 2010 compact. These will likely still be rolling along when the Legislature convenes next spring, even though that portion of the compact expired in July.

"The tribe is going to take time to carefully consider all of its options,” Seminole spokesman Gary Bitner says.

We’ve been here before. In 2007, the Seminole and then-Gov. Charlie Crist reached a compact for blackjack, only to see it voided by the courts, which ruled the Legislature had to sign off on such an agreement. The tribe had begun to pay more than $200 million per year to the state and had already begun offering the games. So they simply kept the tables open while the courts and Legislature worked things out.

“I think they’ll do exactly what they did last time,” Geller said.

Slot machines at Calder.EXPAND
Slot machines at Calder.
Photo by Nick Sortal

The tribe, meanwhile has filed suit against the state, declaring the compact was voided because the Division of Pari-Mutuel Wagering approved games similar to Ultimate Texas Hold’em, Pai Gow Poker, and War. Pari-mutuels have argued the games pit player against player and thus are OK under current laws because they are classified as poker.

An agreement between the state and the Seminoles is only one step, though, Geller notes. The U.S. Department of Interior still must review compacts and agree that the tribes are receiving an adequate benefit for the money they are paying. Under the Obama administration, the department has been viewed as more Indian-friendly and has been more likely to reject compacts.

Geller also points to the legislative makeup as being more promising this year, especially because Sen. Bill Galvano, who helped negotiate the first compact, will be able to devote more attention to the issue, having been occupied with reapportionment last session.

“He understands it probably better than anyone,” Geller said. “Having Bill’s full attention and involvement would clearly help to create a compact.”

And with the compact could come upgrades to South Florida racetrack casinos, such as a lower slot tax and the addition of blackjack. Legislators say those proposals on their own can’t pass but have a chance as part of an overall plan that includes more revenue from the Seminole.

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