By DARA KAM
THE NEWS SERVICE OF FLORIDA
THE CAPITAL, TALLAHASSEE, March 30, 2017……… The House and Senate advanced diametrically opposed gambling packages Thursday, setting the stage for the first serious negotiations in years between legislative leaders — and the Seminole Tribe of Florida — on the thorny issue.
The Senate overwhelmingly approved a gambling proposal (SB 8) that is friendly to the pari-mutuel industry. The bill would allow slot machines in eight counties where voters have approved them, legalize controversial card games at the heart of a legal battle with the Seminoles and allow nearly all tracks and jai alai frontons to do away with live racing or games, a process known as “decoupling.”
Hours later, a major House committee supported a more status-quo measure (HB 7037) focused on a 20-year agreement with the Seminoles, called a “compact.” A portion of a 2010 compact that gave the tribe exclusive rights to operate banked card games, such as blackjack, at most of its casinos expired in 2015, prompting a new round of negotiations — and litigation — with the state.
But discussions about a new compact failed to gain traction last year, after lawmakers did not approve a deal struck by the tribe and Gov. Rick Scott late in 2015.
While the House and Senate now are approaching the complicated gambling issue — which many have likened to a “three-dimensional game of chess” — from opposite ends of the spectrum, Republican legislative leaders acknowledged Thursday the packages provide a starting point for lawmakers to work toward a consensus during negotiations.
“Right now, I think we’ve demonstrated the two bodies can disagree as to what the fundamentals of a bill can look like, but that doesn’t mean the idea is dead,” House Commerce Chairman Jose Felix Diaz, R-Miami, told reporters after his committee supported the House version Thursday. “We’re very far apart. That’s for sure. They’re almost like alternative bills. I don’t know what our pressure points will be.”
Diaz said the House could vote on a gambling proposal as early next week, which would pave the way for formal negotiations between the House and Senate.
Senate bill sponsor Bill Galvano, a Bradenton Republican slated to take over as president of the chamber after the 2018 elections, said lawmakers need to act to provide certainty for the industry and to maximize revenue from the tribe and the pari-mutuels.
“We have this ambiguous, unpredictable state of flux out there that needs to be wrangled in,” Galvano told reporters.
One of the primary objectives for lawmakers on both sides will be settling at least three pending gambling-related lawsuits.
The cases include one in which a federal judge recently sided with the Seminoles regarding the tribe’s ability to continue offering blackjack and other banked card games after the portion of the 2010 compact expired in 2015.
Another lawsuit focuses on whether pari-mutuels in counties where voters have approved slots can add the lucrative machines, even without the express permission of the Legislature.
And a third centers on a recent decision by a Tallahassee judge approving electronic games that critics, including the Seminoles, argue are effectively slot machines and warn could start popping up in convenience stores, bars and gas stations throughout the state.
Meanwhile, the Seminoles, who want to add craps and roulette at tribal casinos, have warned Scott and legislative leaders the U.S. Department of the Interior, which must sign off on a compact, would not approve any deal that requires the tribe to pay more to the state unless the terms also include additional exclusivity.
“I can’t tell you if we’ll ultimately reach a full resolution this session but I can tell you that the major interests and the people who would be part of this resolution — such as the Florida House, the Seminole Tribe of Florida, the governor’s office — they also understand that at this point inaction is not an option,” Galvano said before Thursday’s 32-6 vote on the Senate bill.
Senators spent less than four minutes on the measure, which sailed through two committees prior to being considered by the full chamber.
Galvano told reporters he would “walk away” from any deal that did not resolve the legal disputes.
The movement of the proposals before the legislative session’s midpoint — and the promise of a conference committee to negotiate the issue, a departure from the past — cheered the pari-mutuel industry, which has been unable to force lawmakers to approve major gambling-related legislation for years.
“Obviously, the Senate is going to have to come toward the House position and the House is going to have to come toward the Senate position, and where that middle ground is is still a guessing game to all of us. But the fact that we have two leaders willing to try and hammer this out is something that’s making us all hopeful,” said lobbyist Nick Iarossi, who represents dog tracks in Jacksonville and Melbourne.
The additional pressure of the litigation also buoyed the industry’s hopes, Iarossi said.
“The House and Senate are both tired of the court dictating what the gaming environment in the state looks like,” Iarossi said.
But House Speaker Richard Corcoran told reporters late Thursday any potential gambling deal has “a long, long way to go.”
“It’s a heavy lift. There’s a reason it hasn’t been passed in decades. But this is the first time that anyone probably could recall where you have two bills moving,” Corcoran, R-Land O’ Lakes, said.
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