Broward News

Sen. Maria Sachs Suggests Florida Establish a Gaming Commission

Rules about casino licenses, slot machines, and gambling protocols should be left to those with a longtime background in such matters, argues state Sen. Maria Sachs, D-Delray Beach. Four of the past five years, Sachs has proposed that Florida create a gaming commission. Each time, her bill has died before reaching the floor.

“Something worthwhile in the Legislature takes time — a lot of time,” says Sachs, who has served in the Florida House and Senate since 2006. “Gambling didn’t start overnight in the state. It can’t be changed overnight.” 

As gambling has expanded around the country in recent years, many states have established regulatory commissions – something casinos generally support because it brings about more-consistent rules and policy.  Currently, several conflicts over gambling rules in Florida are being worked out in the courts — which takes a long time, and involves judges and juries who may not understand the complicated landscape of the gambling industry in the state.  A commission, Sachs contends, could be composed of experts on gaming matters, who would work on such issues full-time and resolve conflicts quickly.  She has proposed that such a commission in Florida be composed of five to seven people appointed by the governor and approved by the Legislature.

 Florida has been kicking around questions about big-picture gambling issues for decades now, including whether the state should allow hotel-resort casinos and how much the Seminole Tribe of Florida should pay for its monopoly on slots and certain card games outside of South Florida. (Only facilities in Broward and Miami-Dade were allowed to offer slots, per a constitutional amendment passed by voters in 2004. The Seminoles inked a deal in 2010 to be allowed to offer blackjack in five casinos and slots in Tampa in exchange for $1 billion.) While the Legislature has tried to mold those questions into a long-term comprehensive policy, the state has allowed smaller issues to grow into monster-sized problems.  

Currently, the Florida Division of Pari-Mutuel Wagering oversees gambling for the state. The division is part of the Department of Business and Professional Regulation, whose director is selected by the governor. Since 2011, when Rick Scott took over, the PMW has zigged and zagged.

The PMW approved a parimutuel license for an operation that wanted to offer gambling on rodeo-style barrel racing —  in which two competitors ride as fast as they can around a large barrel and back – in upper Northwest Florida. That parimutuel license also gives that track, Gretna Racing, the option to offer poker. In a court case, Gretna is arguing that it also has the right to allow slots. If the company wins its case, it would open the door for five other counties to also offer slots — which would nullify the Seminoles' exclusive right to offer slots outside of South Florida. It took the governor’s interference to get barrel racing through. His former chief of staff, Steve MacNamara,  essentially fired the director who had denied the barrel-racing permit.

Yet the division flip-flopped in the past 12 months on whether to allow pari-mutuels to offer Three-Card Poker, blackjack, Ultimate Texas Hold ‘em, and other games. The Seminoles currently have exclusive rights to so-called "banked" card games in Florida but the state, through the PMW, in 2015 declared that the aforementioned games could be considered "poker" and thus could be offered by other parimutuels. Tracks spent thousands of dollars installing special card tables, but the Seminoles objected. In December, the PMW backtracked and decided that the games in fact should be defined as "banked" and remain exclusive to the Seminoles. Yep, that means another court case.

 "These questions, as difficult as they may be for us in the Legislature, should not be left for the courts to decide,” says Sachs. 

Florida legislators cite those two court cases as reasons for holdups on other policy decisions. For example, the Seminoles' compact with the state expired last year and a deal to renew it this year fell through, partly because of uncertainty about which way the courts would rule. 

Sachs explained, “Some legislators represent constituents who are opposed [to gambling] for moral reasons, others because it competes with local businesses. But we need to get a consensus for the state to move forward. The past gridlock has not been beneficial to anyone. This is why we need a commission..”

Her appeal has received some support, including from House Speaker Steve Crisafulli, R-Merritt Island, who said in December it was time for the state to have such an oversight commission that could focus every day on gaming issues.

Sachs also has a reply for those who are against adding more government.

“I wouldn’t have said this last year, but this makes government more efficient, more streamlined,” she says. “I love the people we have, but gaming is a tough business and it should be handled by those who know the business. That’s the model other states use."

“I think there are two things we need to do,” Sachs says. “First, we need to recognize that we’re a gambling state. We have gambling, and we need to step up and do it in a professional way. Then we need to be professional about it. You need a system to administer, enforce, and regulate it.”

(Left unsaid: Parimutuel and anti-casino interests are a money source. By letting go of their influence on gambling, campaign funding could be less.) 

Says Sachs: “The important thing is to have a professionally run commission to make sure not only the people are safeguarded, but also those who game and those in the business of gaming. Let’s get it out of the hands of politicians and into the hands of professionals.”

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Correction: An earlier version misstated the year the Seminole compact was signed. It has been corrected, above, to 2010.  The earlier version also omitted the fact that the deal included  blackjack in five casinos. 
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Nick Sortal is South Florida’s expert journalist when it comes to the gambling scene. He covered the openings, expansions, poker tournaments, entertainment, and human-interest facets of the industry for the South Florida Sun-Sentinel from 2007 until taking a buyout in November 2015, capping a 30-year career that included state and national awards and features about naked yoga. He now writes a weekly column for the Miami Herald and also reports about gambling on his site, The Southern Illinois native worked for papers in St. Louis and Indianapolis before joining the Sun Sentinel in 1985. He likes triathlons, country music, basketball, and bragging about his family.
Contact: Nick Sortal