A lawyer for the Seminole Tribe of Florida on Friday said his client is offended over gambling that violates its exclusive agreement with the state and won’t agree to a new deal unless “the games end.”
Barry Richard, the Tribe’s outside counsel, and tribal leaders met with Sen. Bill Galvano and Rep. Jose Oliva this week on a grand bargain for future gambling that includes a renewed deal guaranteeing the state $3 billion over seven years from the Seminoles’ revenue. The Tribe’s casinos include the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Tampa.
The two lawmakers, set to respectively become Senate President and House Speaker after the 2018 elections, are the Legislature’s lead negotiators for an expected conference committee to hammer out legislation this Session. No offers were made at this week’s meeting, Richard said. The Tribe has paid well over $200 million yearly into state coffers.
The Seminoles fare better under the House position, which would ban designated player games, a hybrid of poker and blackjack offered in pari-mutuel card rooms. It also freezes any chance of expanding slot machines.
The Senate would allow continued play of designated player games. And Senate President Joe Negron said as recently as this week that lawmakers “owe it to the hundreds of thousands of fellow citizens who live in the eight counties that have approved (slot machine) referendums, including St. Lucie County, which I represent … They decided they wanted additional slots … I think that needs to be given great weight.”
Nope, said Richard: “Those things are non-starters for the Tribe. It’s insulting to the Tribe to say, ‘yeah, pay us more and by the way, we’re going to increase your competition.’
“… I’m not saying Sen. Galvano or Rep. Oliva did anything to insult the Tribe. But they’re constantly having to fight these brushfires where there are always people, usually pari-mutuels, trying to find ways to infringe on the Tribe’s exclusivity.
“That’s what designated player games are, that’s what (pre-reveal games) are, that’s what these (slots) referenda are. The Tribe’s position is, you want to make a deal? Close down all this other stuff. And don’t make us be constantly fighting to protect what we have.”
The Tribe is in the catbird seat, however.
In 2016, a federal judge ruled the state had broken the exclusivity deal, called the Seminole Compact, by allowing designated player games that played too much like blackjack. That allowed it to keep its blackjack tables until 2030 and not have to share money with the state.
Moreover, a proposed “Voter Control of Gambling” constitutional amendment will be on the November ballot, requiring voter approval for any new or added gaming in the state. If it gets 60 percent approval, lawmakers will be indefinitely shut out from influencing gambling.
The Tribe’s lawsuit over card games was settled during appeal, and the Tribe and state agreed to a “forbearance period”—think of it as each eyeing the other warily—while the state agreed to “aggressively enforce” the Compact. That period ends March 31.
At this week’s meeting, Galvano and Oliva “wanted to explore whether there was a basis to extend that forbearance and the possibility of a bigger agreement on a compact,” Richard said. “(It was) agreed to talk about that further but there were no specifics. Just to exchange some proposals if anybody came up with anything.”
Richard also challenged Negron’s and other lawmakers’ desire to honor the will of voters in areas that want slots. A unanimous state Supreme Court last May decided “nothing in (state gambling law) grants any authority to regulate slot machine gaming to any county,” meaning the law would have to be changed to add slots.
“Maybe somebody needs to explain it to me, but I don’t understand what ‘do right by these counties’ means,” Richard said. “If someone does something illegal, we need to go back and say it’s OK now? That makes no sense at all, and it’s not fair to the Tribe.”
In sum, Richard suggested a hard road to all sides agreeing on a grand gambling bargain before the clock runs out. Jim Shore, the Tribe’s general counsel who was at this week’s meeting, also has said fantasy sports legislation, if passed, would be a deal-breaker.
“The Tribe will never agree to anything that allows other counties to have Class III gaming, like slot machines and these so-called designated player games, and they will never agree to anything that infringes upon their exclusivity,” he said.
“They fought a lawsuit over that, they won, and they have the right to stop making payments, and if they have any willingness to extend the forbearance period, it’s because the state offers something in return.
“… Remember, the Tribe doesn’t have to do anything,” Richard added. “They don’t need to make a deal with the state anymore. They’re willing to make a deal, but only if it makes economic sense. Right now, nobody’s talking about doing anything that makes economic sense.”