April 27, 2014

Marc Caputo: In gambling talks, is Gov. Rick Scott playing poker or Uno?

The end of Florida’s 60-day legislative session always resembles a complicated card game, a poker-bridge blend with legislation traded back and forth amid hidden agendas and the high stakes of a $75 billion budget.

The end of Florida’s 60-day legislative session always resembles a complicated card game, a poker-bridge blend with legislation traded back and forth amid hidden agendas and the high stakes of a $75 billion budget.

Gov. Rick Scott just threw down a wild card.

With less than a week before the session ends on Friday, Scott’s team is provoking talk about a special legislative session, perhaps starting May 18, to consider a new gambling deal with the Seminole Tribe of Florida.

The potential deal, called a “compact,” could give the state as much as $500 million annually, about double what it gets now. But it could hurt the states 31 pari-mutuel facilities, many of which see the Seminoles and Miccosukee tribes as threats.

To pull this off, Scott needs five-card stud poker skills. But some wonder whether he is more suited to play the simple kid’s game Uno.

The governor has struggled mightily with the Legislature at times, except when it comes to the easiest of items (e.g., a package of tax cuts for a Republican-led body in an election year).

Gambling legislation is about as complicated as it gets in Florida. It divides Republicans. It’s not something that passes quickly or easily, nor is it usually sprung on lawmakers at the end of session.

It’s a zero-sum game of special-interest rivalries. The Seminoles, which have Vegas-style casinos, want craps and roulette as well as limits on expansion of gambling elsewhere. They basically want a monopoly. Give them that, and it could crush pari-mutuels.

Mardi Gras Casino is among the most vulnerable. It has to compete in Broward County with the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino, one of the nation’s most-profitable.

Then there’s Genting Resorts World, Wynn Resorts Ltd., and Las Vegas Sands Corp., which is owned by national GOP sugar daddy Sheldon Adelson. All want to bring destination resort casinos to Florida.

Adding to the mix, the pari-mutuels also fight each other.

“What’s so frustrating about the gambling issue is that you can’t move a comma without it being zero-sum,” said state Rep. Matt Gaetz, a conservative Panhandle Republican and son of Senate President Don Gaetz.

“A special session this early would require a pretty Herculean effort and it’s pretty unlikely at this point,” he said. “We need more analysis and more time than just a couple of weeks. So far, we’ve had our ear pressed against a closed door with a glass.”

Though Scott’s team floated outlines of a potential compact and sparked talk of a special session, the governor’s office insisted to the press that “there is no deal.”

A major obstacle: many conservatives are anti-gambling in the Legislature. As many as 30 Republicans in the 74-member House GOP caucus can be counted on as hell-no votes on most gambling deals.

That means Democratic votes are likely needed in the 120-member House. Democrats have few incentives to help a tea-party governor in an election year. Also, many hail from areas that have pari-mutuels.

The Senate, also controlled by Republicans, is unpredictable. Senate President Gaetz, for instance, saw a relatively minor greyhound-racing bill die in his own chamber’s committees.

Gambling is no easy lift.

Scott’s team wants to sell a compact to Republicans as a way to limit gambling and concentrate it. Also, they want to pass a deal that gives the state more money than the last Seminole compact passed by former Gov. Charlie Crist, now a Democrat challenging Scott.

The high-stakes nature of an election-year special session over gambling could also prove an embarrassment to Scott if it fails. He could look feckless.

As a Republican with high poll numbers in 2007, Crist struggled with the GOP-led Legislature over a compact. Then-House Speaker Marco Rubio, before beating Crist in the 2010 Senate race, sued the governor over the deal. Rubio prevailed and a watered-down version passed the House, thanks partly to Democratic votes.

Scott’s new lieutenant governor, Carlos Lopez-Cantera, helped negotiate the previous compact when he was in the House.

Lopez-Cantera is certainly aware that the Seminoles know Crist as someone they can do business with, and many Scott supporters fear that the Indians will defect to Crist and prop up his campaign with millions, cutting into Scott’s sizable cash advantage.

So keeping the Seminoles at the table could prove the smartest play yet by Scott. The May 18 special session date could be a false card. Passing a gaming compact later in the election cycle might be a bigger political jackpot.

A special session also brings about the possibility of other special-interest legislation and, therefore, campaign donations for the incumbent.

Not only is a special session in doubt, so is a new gambling agreement more broadly. The politics and economy have changed since the last compact was struck, and a few Republicans say they don't want to deal with this at all.

Personal relationships are another factor. The governor and his team have done relatively little to soothe enough egos or cultivate personal relationships.

By having a special session in May, the governor could be able to leverage lawmakers by holding hostage just-passed legislation or hometown spending projects. Many lawmakers have already been leveraged on other matters. So this tactic could be viewed as bad faith double-dealing by some.

“Scott’s people think they work for Jeb Bush,” said one Republican. “Lopez-Cantera aside, they’re clueless.”

The governor’s backers say he’s playing with a full deck, not a pack of jokers.

So go figure. Or, perhaps, just go fish.

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