With time running out on the 2020 legislative session, Gov. Ron DeSantis and Senate President Bill Galvano continue to hold out hope that the state can seal a lucrative gambling deal with the Seminole Tribe of Florida.
House and Senate leaders have huddled for weeks on a proposed agreement with the tribe, known as a “compact,” that could reap the state up to $700 million a year if the Seminoles agree. Until recently, the tribe has been on the sidelines.
But Tuesday afternoon, the negotiations took a new twist, according to Galvano, a Bradenton Republican who was instrumental in the passage of a 2010 compact with the Seminoles.
“We have made progress internally, and we are now engaged in negotiations with the Tribe,” the Senate president said in a prepared statement.
Action on the gambling issue appeared to ramp up as lawmakers negotiate a 2020-2021 budget and as the state faces unexpected costs because of the novel coronavirus. As of Tuesday, Florida had three cases of the deadly virus, which began in China and is known as COVID-19.
Gambling negotiators are almost certain to have additional time to work things out before the end of the legislative session, which is scheduled to close on March 13. During a floor session Tuesday, House Speaker José Oliva, told representatives that it is “inevitable” the session will run overtime because of delays in reaching agreement on a budget.
Speaking to reporters, DeSantis said “there’s a good chance” that Galvano can reach an agreement with the tribe.
“I hope we get to a deal there. But again, I’d rather have a good deal and do it a few days later, or even you can even bring people back potentially, than try to force things under an artificial timeline,” the Republican Governor said, indicating that the Legislature could convene a special session on gambling.
House and Senate leaders who are working on the perennially elusive gambling deal have remained mum about details.
But, according to pari-mutuel lobbyists and sources familiar with the talks, the state’s offer would allow the tribe to add craps and roulette to its casino games, which now include slot machines and “banked” card games such as blackjack.
The proposal would also allow the Seminoles to have exclusive rights to offer online sports betting. Players could place bets on the online sites from anywhere in the state. And the tribe would be allowed to add one or two casinos in Broward County, where it already operates the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Hollywood.
The tribe would pay $500 million in the first year and up to about $700 million in annual payments, according to those familiar with the state’s offer.
The Seminoles, meanwhile, are reportedly seeking online casinos — a massive expansion of gambling that could cause state leaders to balk.
The state proposal would also allow pari-mutuels to continue hosting controversial “designated player” card games, which could be a major sticking point for the Seminoles. Those games, offered by many pari-mutuel facilities throughout the state, have been at the heart of a legal dispute between the state and the tribe.
Pari-mutuel cardrooms, especially those outside of Miami-Dade and Broward counties that are not allowed to have slot machines, have grown to rely heavily on lucrative designated-player games as their major sources of revenue. Pari-mutuels contend that thousands of jobs — and tens of millions of dollars in revenue for the operators — would be lost, were the games to go away.
The Seminoles — and a federal judge — have maintained that the card games violate a 2010 gambling compact that gave the tribe “exclusivity” over offering banked card games, such as blackjack. But that agreement expired in 2015, prompting discussions about a new compact, which would have severely pared the designated player games.
Under a settlement with former Gov. Rick Scott, the tribe continued to pay about $350 million a year to the state.
In May, the Seminoles made good on threats and quit the long-standing revenue-sharing agreement with the state after the demise of a potential deal they had reached with Sen. Wilton Simpson, a Trilby Republican slated to take over as Senate president after the 2020 elections.
DeSantis, who took office in January 2019, rejected the plan, saying he needed more time to scrutinize its details.
While it is uncertain how much time remains in this year’s legislative session, insiders predict it is unlikely the Legislature will approve a new compact unless the deal is finalized quickly, even as soon as Wednesday.
“My guess is the tribe is analyzing whether the additional games authorized under the deal are worth the requested payment to the state versus having no new compact and paying nothing to the state,” a pari-mutuel lobbyist who is close to the talks told The News Service of Florida on Tuesday afternoon. The lobbyist spoke on condition that he not be identified.
While DeSantis hinted that a special session on gambling might be in the works — a rumor that has been percolating throughout the Capitol for several days — the lobbyist expressed doubts about lawmakers coming back to Tallahassee for the gambling issue.
“Anything is possible. But typically deals come together while in the pressure-cooker of the legislative session,” he said. “Once these members go home to their districts, the will to act and leverage tend to dissipate.”
If the Seminoles turn down a deal, the lobbyist said the state would have to make a “bold move …to bring the tribe to the table in earnest.”
Such a move could include potentially allowing pari-mutuels to conduct games that only the Seminoles can now operate, or authorizing sports betting.
But such a threat would be problematic, thanks to the constraints of a constitutional amendment approved by voters in 2018.
The amendment gave voters the “exclusive right to decide whether to authorize casino gambling” in the state, something that in the past has largely been controlled by the Legislature.
Galvano has been at odds with supporters of the amendment, largely bankrolled by the Seminole Tribe and Disney Worldwide Services Inc., over whether the Legislature even has the power to deal with sports betting.