Florida Politics

Key Florida lawmaker says passage of $3 billion gaming deal unlikely

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

A $3 billion gaming deal between Gov. Rick Scott and the Seminole Tribe of Florida that would make craps and roulette legal is in increasing jeopardy of being rejected by the Florida Legislature even though it could hurt the state financially.

That was the message a top state lawmaker brought to a gathering of top gambling company executives in Orlando Thursday.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Galvano, a key author of the previous deal Scott renegotiated, said the gaming compact proposed by the governor last month needs more input from dog tracks, horse racing operators and other parimutuels for it to be embraced by the Legislature. The Bradenton Republican said the Legislature has to have a far bigger discussion about how it wants to address the topic of gambling statewide and not help the Seminoles.

“There is a very real possibility that we will not pass a compact this session,” Galvano told about 100 people at the annual Florida Gaming Congress at the Rosen Shingle Creek Resort in Orlando.

If a new compact is not agreed on, it could put the state in a legal showdown with the Seminole Tribe over card games like blackjack and baccarat that were part of the previous deal. Galvano said without a new compact, those card games must cease. But James Allen, CEO of the Seminole Tribe, said they are within their legal rights to continue operating the games.

“I would tell you it is 100 percent not the Tribe’s goal to litigate this,” Allen said in an interview before touting the new compact at the Gaming Congress. “We would prefer to reach a resolution, have the compact signed, continue the amazingly positive relationship we’ve had with the state of Florida and move forward for the next 20 years.”

Allen said he is still hopeful of passing a new compact. He said the Tribe negotiated with the House, the Senate, and the governor and has a “great foundation” heading into the session.

Galvano said the Legislature will begin reviewing the compact by the second week of its 60-day session, which starts Tuesday. But he said to address all concerns, it might have to wait until the 2017 session.

That was welcome news for key players with parimutuel companies in Florida who oppose the new deal negotiated by the governor.

Under terms of that tentative agreement, the Seminole Tribe would get exclusive rights to operate blackjack, craps and roulette in its seven casinos in exchange for revenue sharing payments over 20 years. Its payments are made based on a sliding scale that rises the more the tribe makes in profits, and the deal guarantees a $3 billion minimum over seven years starting in 2017.

If the compact is not renewed, the state could miss out on hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue from the Seminole Tribe.

The deal would prevent parimutuels from offering slot machines, except in Miami-Dade and Palm Beach. Dave Jonas, CEO of Casino Miami, said the problem with the compact is that by giving exclusivity for certain games to the tribe, it bars parimutuels from innovating and expanding gaming options that the industry badly needs to survive as younger generations turn to online games and fantasy sports.

“Any innovation is particularly locked out because of the compact,” Jonas said. “Whatever comes out of the compact is going to lock Florida in for the next 15 to 20 years, to stuff that is already dinosaur.”

But while many parimutuel companies acknowledge their industry is in decline, they still carry considerable political weight in Tallahassee because they have operations in so many legislative districts and have long been a power resource for campaign donations. That political pressure gives the parimutuel industry key power in being able to block the compact from being signed if it harms their industry too much.

“The Seminole compact is not passed unless something good happens for the parimutuels,” Alan Koslow, a gambling law expert and lobbyist for the parimutuel industry, told the gathering in Orlando.

When moderator and former state Sen. Steven Geller asked the four others on a panel discussion about parimutuels if anyone disagreed with Koslow, no one spoke up.

Geller said he sees several obstacles to getting the compact approved. He said the Legislature spent a lot of energy in the fall on redistricting issues and did not hold workshops on gaming issues that could have prepared them for this year’s session. In addition, 2016 is a big election year with all 160 members of the Legislature up for re-election, and gambling is a sensitive political topic to tackle.

Izzy Havenick, vice president of Magic City Casino in Miami, agreed there is little appetite for the Legislature to take on any gaming issues and predicted little substantive legislation will emerge.

“Nothing will happen,” Havernick said, “but a lot of talk.”

Contact Jeremy Wallace at jwallace@tampabay.com or (850) 224-7263. Follow @jeremyswallace.