State Politics

No dice: Gambling deal falls apart over House and Senate differences

A poker hand is seen at the World Poker Tour, at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in Hollywood, on Wednesday, April 18, 2012.
A poker hand is seen at the World Poker Tour, at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in Hollywood, on Wednesday, April 18, 2012. Miami Herald file photo

A deal that could have allowed at least one new casino in Miami, permitted craps and roulette at the seven casinos operated by the Seminole Tribe of Florida and authorized slot machines in eight more Florida counties collapsed Tuesday.

After months of working on competing gambling legislation, Florida House and Senate negotiators declared an impasse that had no hope of being resolved by Friday, when the Legislature was scheduled to end its annual 60-day session.

“It’s dead,” said Sen. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton.

State Rep. José Felix Díaz, R-Miami, later said there were too many unresolved issues.

“We just couldn’t get it across the finish line,” Díaz said.

If the Legislature had approved a new gaming bill and agreement with the Seminole Tribe, the state would have collected an estimated $250 million to $300 million in additional annual revenue in return for exclusive rights on various games for the Tribe. Lawmakers wanted a new deal to clarify the state’s gaming laws, which have been weakened by a series of legal challenges, court rulings and numerous loopholes.

There were many reasons the deal crumbled Tuesday, but Diaz said the main problem was what to do about eight counties where voters approved slot machines at dog racing and horse racing tracks.

The House wanted to ban pari-mutuels from adding slot machines in the eight counties where voters have authorized the games — Brevard, Duval, Gadsden, Lee, Hamilton, Palm Beach, St. Lucie and Washington counties. They also wanted to reverse court rulings that have allowed pari-mutuels to operate designated-player games — popular alternatives to poker.

But the Senate was adamant that counties that voted to allow slot machines should be able to proceed. Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart, said that the issue is about respecting the will of voters in the eight counties.

“They voted for it,” Negron said. “A gaming bill has to respect their decision to allow more gaming opportunity.”

But Díaz said philosophically that was a problem for the House. Gambling affects adjacent cities and counties, not just those jurisdictions where they are allowed.

“If you really do want gaming in these counties, maybe every voter in the state should agree,” Díaz said.

Voters have passed a statewide referendum to allow slot machines in Miami-Dade and Broward, but there has never been a statewide referendum for the other counties.

The gaming bill’s demise prevents Genting, a Malaysian company, from building a casino in Miami on the former site of the Miami Herald. The Senate plan also could have allowed the declining horse and dog racing and jai-alai industries to stop racing and operate as slot casinos exclusively.

Díaz said the House was open to talking about allowing a casino in Miami, but Miami-Dade voters would have had to approve it.

“My goal was always to protect Miami-Dade County and though this bill is dead, there was never a time when I felt like we would not give the residents of Miami-Dade a voice in the process by referendum,” Díaz said.

Now the House and Senate are left watching the courts to see how they will rule on several gaming cases. Notably, the Florida Supreme Court is expected to rule soon on a case related to a small horse race track in Gadsden County. That county voted to allow slot machines at the pari-mutuel. If the court favors the track, it would allow the slot machines there without any action by the Legislature.

“There is a lot of expansion going on by judicial fiat and not have a compact, we’re not able to close these loopholes,” Díaz said.

Contact Jeremy Wallace at jwallace@tampabay.com. Follow @JeremySWallace

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