Fred Grimm

Fred Grimm: If Florida had an actual gaming policy, it would be in big trouble

In this file photo, a patron enjoys playing slot machines at Casino Miami Jai-Alai on January 25, 2012 in Miami, Florida. The First District Court of Appeal is allowing a racetrack up in rural Gadsden County to set up a slot machine emporium, conflicting state law which limits slot machines to racinos in Mami-Dade and Broward County and the Seminole Tribe casinos.
In this file photo, a patron enjoys playing slot machines at Casino Miami Jai-Alai on January 25, 2012 in Miami, Florida. The First District Court of Appeal is allowing a racetrack up in rural Gadsden County to set up a slot machine emporium, conflicting state law which limits slot machines to racinos in Mami-Dade and Broward County and the Seminole Tribe casinos. MIAMI HERALD STAFF

Looking for explanatory journalism to help you sort through the vagaries of Florida’s gaming policy? Got some bad news. There’s no explaining.

When you get down to it, there’s no policy.

We were already wallowing in an illogical muck when a three-judge panel from Florida’s First District Court of Appeal added to the chaos. On May 29, the court issued a 2-1 opinion allowing a sorry excuse for a racetrack up in rural Gadsden County to set up a slot machine emporium.

Back in 2012, voters in Gadsden (about 20 miles west of Tallahassee) approved a slot machine referendum. Which at the time seemed no more than a symbolic gesture. Because state law clearly limited slot machines to racinos in Mami-Dade and Broward County and the Seminole Tribe casinos.

Besides, the Seminoles have been paying the state at least $234 million a year to keep it that way.

But the appeal court panel cited some vague wording in state gaming law and decided that the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation had wrongly denied Gretna Racing a slot machine license.

Gadsden County’s only the first domino about to topple. Voters in five other counties — Palm Beach, Brevard, Hamilton, Lee and Washington — also approved slot referendums.

If this ruling holds, so much for the Seminole gaming compact. Under the agreement, the tribe can quit making those hefty annual payments to the state if parimutuels outside Broward and Miami-Dade counties start operating slots.

Of course, a portion of the Seminole compact was already falling apart. The tribe also pays for the exclusive right to run table games, like blackjack. That part of the deal, which expires on July 31, is up for negotiations. Except the Seminoles seem to have no one with whom to negotiate.

The governor has disappeared. The Legislature can’t agree on a basic budget, much less work out a new gambling compact with the tribe. “There is nothing new to report regarding compact negotiations,” Gary Bitner, the tribe’s spokesman, told me by email Wednesday.

Under the federal Indian gaming law, the Seminoles might just emerge from the impasse with the right to continue running their casinos, table games and all, without paying the state a thing.

Tallahassee could fix this. Except Tallahassee can’t agree on anything. Back before the regular legislative session frittered to an early and ignominious end, there was talk of allowing Las Vegas-style destination casinos in South Florida. Legislators promised to allow greyhound tracks to “decouple” unprofitable dog racing from slot and poker operations.

We heard of proposals to lighten the 35 percent tax rate that racinos pay on slot machine revenue; talk of a deal with those upstarts up in Gadsden County; or to allow the return of “senior arcades.”

Legislators even talked about establishing a muscular gaming commission to regulate state gambling activities.

We heard, before it all fell apart, about the need for clarity in Florida gambling policy. Nothing came of all that high-minded talk out of Tallahassee. We’ve got no policy to clarify.

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