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House gambling bill to pari-mutuels: Drop dead

The House on Friday dropped its 83-page omnibus gambling bill for 2018, which reads like a love letter to the Seminole Tribe of Florida and a poison pen missive to nearly all the other gambling interests in the state.

Industry representatives privately admitted the legislation—overseen by Speaker-designate Jose Oliva—was a placeholder for the House to pass, getting the House and Senate into conference committee to hammer out the details, as they did last year, albeit unsuccessfully.

But they also groused the House wanted to renew a 2010 gambling deal with the Seminoles, who pay for certain exclusive rights to offer gambling in Florida, at the expense of the state’s dog and horse tracks that offer other gambling, like cardrooms. The House bill includes a new “Seminole Compact,” the deal between the Tribe and the state; the Senate version does not.

Moreover, the House directs that part of the cut of the state’s money from Seminole gambling go to education, including shoring up “persistently failing schools,” a concern of Speaker Richard Corcoran.

The House proposal also declares designated-player games offered in many pari-mutuel cardrooms to be “illegal and prohibited.” The Senate bill allows them, but says they can’t constitute more than half of games in a cardroom.

The games, a hybrid of poker and blackjack that’s been lucrative for the pari-mutuels, were at the core of a lawsuit by the Tribe against the state that settled out of court last year. The Tribe argued some designated-player games played too much like blackjack, which the state had guaranteed that the Tribe could offer exclusively in Florida.

The House bill would expressly outlaw pre-reveal machines, slot machine-style entertainment devices, most often placed in bars. A Tallahassee judge’s ruling that they’re illegal slots is under appeal.

And the House also provides for the “mandatory revocation of dormant and delinquent (gambling) permits,” allows for “discretionary revocation of certain permits” and “prohibits the issuance of new permits,” “prohibits the conversion of permits” and “prohibits the transfer or relocation of pari-mutuel permits or licenses,” according to a bill summary.

“We would love to have a long-standing, 20, 30 year certainty of what gaming looks like for Florida,” Corcoran told reporters Tuesday. “At the same time, we would like to see a contraction” of gambling, “given our make-up as a family-values state.”

The staff analysis for the bill, however, warns that “affected permitholders may claim that such provisions offend constitutional protections.”

On the other hand, the legislation “extends for 20 years both the Tribe’s current exclusive authorization to conduct banked games (like blackjack) statewide and the Tribe’s current exclusive authorization to conduct slot machine gaming outside of Miami-Dade and Broward Counties.”

In exchange, “the Tribe will make revenue sharing payments totaling at least $3 billion to the State during the first seven years of the 2018 Compact”—mirroring a deal Gov. Rick Scott struck with Tribal leaders in late 2015 but that lawmakers never approved.

That money would be split three ways: A third to “K-12 teacher recruitment and retention bonuses,” another third to “schools that serve students from persistently failing schools,” and the final third to “higher education institutions to recruit and retain distinguished faculty.”

A blackjack provision in the 2010 Compact has expired, but the Tribe sued, saying the state’s OK of designated-player games broke the exclusivity deal. A federal judge agreed, allowing the Seminoles to keep offering blackjack till 2030.

“Under the settlement, the Tribe agrees to continue making revenue sharing payments for a period of time (ending March 31) so long as (state gambling regulators) pursue ‘aggressive enforcement’ against the operation of banked card games by pari-mutuel facilities,” the staff analysis explains.

When asked for comment, Gary Bitner—the Tribe’s longtime spokesman—said only that “the Seminole Tribe is always open to discussion with leaders and members of the Legislature.”

The proposal will be on the agenda at the next meeting of the House Tourism and Gaming Control Subcommittee, 9 a.m. Tuesday.

Written By

Jim Rosica is the Tallahassee-based Senior Editor for Florida Politics. He previously was the Tampa Tribune’s statehouse reporter. Before that, he covered three legislative sessions in Florida for The Associated Press. Jim graduated from law school in 2009 after spending nearly a decade covering courts for the Tallahassee Democrat, including reporting on the 2000 presidential recount. He can be reached at jim@floridapolitics.com.

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