Florida House, Senate Seek Slots Compromise
When the Florida legislature reconvenes in March, the House and Senate will try to compromise on certain gambling issues in order to reach a potential $3.1 billion compact with the Seminole Tribe.
One major conflict between the two chambers concerns a lawsuit pending in the Florida Supreme Court, which would allow slot machines in eight counties where voters approved gambling expansion. House Commerce Committee Chairman Jose Felix Diaz recently said, “At some point last year, there was a proposal that would have massively and indiscriminately expanded slot-machine gaming in various counties across the state. The House said then that our goals are two-fold: a contraction in gaming and a long-term solution.” However, Senate President Joe Negron said, “The voters in a number of counties have approved referendums either expanding or confirming gaming opportunities so I don’t think we should stand in the way of that. But I think there’s a compromise.”
Diaz added, “We still believe that there is a path forward for an amended compact with the Seminole Tribe of Florida. We look forward to working with the governor, the Senate and the many gaming interests in Florida to try to strike a compromise in line with our principles for the future of our great State.”
Governor Rick Scott has met with Seminole tribal officials to discuss the compact issue. Tribal spokesman Gary Bitner said, “The Seminole Tribe is open to discussions and negotiations as part of its continuing desire to finalize a new gaming compact with the state of Florida, but the tribe prefers not to negotiate in the media.”
In the November election, voters in Duval and St. Lucie counties approved referendums to allow slot machines in parimutuel facilities. Previously voters in six counties approved allowing slots, including Brevard, Lee and Gadsden counties. Creek Entertainment Gretna in Gadsden County sued the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation after the agency denied the venue a permit for slots. The First District Court of Appeal had ruled the parimutuel quarter horse barrel racing facility required legislative approval to add slots. The Florida Supreme Court heard arguments in the case in June.
Attorney Marc Dunbar, representing Creek Entertainment Gretna (and an owner of the facility) said, “These are the smartest guys on the issue, having worked hard on the bill last year. They understand the chessboard and I am optimistic that they will be able to thread the needle this year.”
In 2004, Florida voters approved a constitutional amendment that legalized slot machines at parimutuel facilities in Broward and Miami-Dade counties. Voters in those counties had to approve the measure in separate local referendums.
The Gretna facility also is concerned about being able to offer certain card games that were included in a recent decision by Senior U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle. He ruled that Scott’s gaming regulators allowed card games to be offered at race tracks that are similar to the games the Seminole Tribe had sole rights to, as part of a $1 billion, five-year agreement with the state which expired last year. Hinkle said the cardrooms’ games were an “egregious example of the cardrooms’ attempt to evade the prohibition on banked card games.” As a result, he ruled the state reneged on the compact and that the Seminoles could keep their blackjack games until 2030.
Dunbar recently filed a motion to alter a portion of Hinkle’s ruling which, the Gretna track claims, could make it a crime for its cardroom to continue to offer specific card games. In response, the Seminole Tribe filed a memorandum opposing the track’s motion.
Another issue that’s expected to come up in the next legislative session is decoupling, which would allow parimutuels like Thoroughbred, Quarter horse, Standardbred and greyhound tracks plus jai-alai frontons to continue to operate poker rooms and slots if they discontinue parimutuel operations.
Florida Thoroughbred Breeders’ and Owners’ Association Chief Executive Officer Lonny Powell said he expects decoupling to be “the biggest challenge” for the parimutuel industry. “What sets the Thoroughbred industry apart is our two tracks are committed to racing. But if those stand-alone casinos pop up all over, they will be at a disadvantage.”