House advances bill to create new gaming agency

As a Florida House committee voted Wednesday to create a new state agency to regulate gambling, Gov. Rick Scott asked the Senate to put the brakes on its proposal to bring two resort casinos to South Florida so that the legislation would not interfere with his gambling negotiations with the Seminole Tribe.

As a result, Senate Gaming Committee Chairman Garrett Richter abruptly canceled a scheduled meeting Monday to take up the Senate’s gambling bills.

“The governor’s office called me and asked if we would slow down the process until we know what the terms of a potential deal with the tribe is,’’ Richter told the Herald/Times late Wednesday. He said that he expects the vote to be delayed for at least another week and that he is optimistic the governor will resolve the gaming compact before the legislative session ends in May.

The compact, a legal agreement between the state and tribe, guarantees that the tribe will give the state about $234 million a year in revenue in exchange for the exclusive right to operate slot machines at four casinos outside Miami-Dade and Broward. It also allows the tribe to operate banked card games — blackjack, chemin de fer and baccarat — at the Hard Rock casinos in Tampa and near Hollywood, plus three other casinos.

The portion of the agreement that relates to table games expires Aug. 1, 2015, and Scott has decided to start negotiating terms of the deal now. If he resolves the agreement, legislators must ratify it, and it is uncertain whether that could be completed before the session adjourns May 2.

Meanwhile, the House and Senate are moving forward with bills that overhaul how the state regulates gaming, and both are prepared to open the door to expanded gaming if the governor agrees to allow new games during his negotiations with the tribe.

The House Gaming Committee on Wednesday approved a proposal to create a new state agency to regulate gambling and create a Gaming Control Board. It also voted to put an amendment on the November ballot that would require voter approval of future gambling expansion. Similar bills are moving in the Senate, and both chambers propose creating an appointed oversight board with the power to regulate and control gaming in Florida.

Unlike the House, the Senate plan also allows for two new resort casinos to be allowed in Miami-Dade and Broward, but offers no new gaming for existing parimutuels, a prospect that threatened to erode support among the pro-gambling committee.

The increasing support for gambling by the Republican-controlled House may be influenced by a recent poll of Republican Senate districts in Florida. It found that expanding gambling is not likely to be the election-year negative feared by many in the GOP.

The poll of 650 likely Republican voters by the Tarrance Group was conducted Feb. 10-13 and paid for by the Republican Party of Florida. It found that 61 percent of likely Republican voters favor allowing destination resort casinos, as long as voters of the state approve it; only 33 percent oppose it.

That is up from 53 percent in favor a year ago, when voters were not asked about a statewide referendum. A noticeable drop-off in support occurs on allowing the casinos just in South Florida — an indication that there is strong support for allowing the gaming expansion to occur statewide.

While both the House and Senate bills open the door for expanded gambling, neither give the parimutuel industry any new games and neither lower the tax rates on existing racinos in South Florida.

Complicating the issue: the state’s parimutuel racinos, horse track and dog tracks are not the only ones opposing the creation of an oversight board.

No Casinos, the Orlando-backed group that is funded in party by Disney Worldwide, warns that a new gaming regulatory agency would likely be controlled by the industry.

“If Florida wants to get cozy with casinos, there’s no easier way than to set up a bureaucratic ‘control board,’ ” the organization wrote in a statement Wednesday. “Common sense should make people wonder: Why do out-of-state casino interests want legislators to create a new gambling bureaucracy? Because they know it will increase their influence.”

The conflict between the two chambers, and the resistance from the state’s powerful parimutuel industry to the plans, makes it unlikely that either proposal will pass unless the governor completes his negotiations, said Rep. Jim Waldman, D-Coconut Creek, the ranking House Democrat on the gaming committee.

“I don’t anticipate gaming to be resolved until the last week of session, and the governor’s participation with the Seminole Tribe will have a direct impact,’’ he said.

But the governor has not indicated how far he is willing to take the talks. If he agrees to any expansion of gambling, the existing compact is null and void. But if the governor renews the compact, he may antagonize the powerful — and heavily financed — parimutuel industry and out-of-state casino giants, which could direct campaign contributions to his election-year opponents.

The House Gaming Committee unanimously approved the proposal (HB 1383) to create the Gaming Control Board, but the vote on the constitutional amendment (PCB SCOG 14-01) was divided along party lines. Questions remain as to the effectiveness of such a board.

Rep. Erik Fresen, R-Miami, said he supports removing the special interest squabbles over gaming from the Legislature in order to let the voters decide. But, he warned, it could ignite a “nuclear arms race to a 30-second ad and a mail piece to every constitutional amendment that’s put there — and that’s probably the worst kind of special-interest driven legislation.”

Rep. Charles McBurney, R-Jacksonville, supports putting the amendment on the ballot, which would require 60 percent of the voters to approve it.

“The history of Florida has allowed unintentional expansion of gaming — it’s kind of been a situation of a death of a thousand cuts,’’ he said. “Florida voters, when given a chance to vote on expansion of gambling, have either rejected it or put limitations on it. From a legislation perspective, it’s been kind of a gambling creep. Going forward this puts the brakes on unintentional expansion, and I have faith in Florida voters to make the decision on such an important area.”