Gambling bills start moving amid talks

A bill nixing the requirement that pari-mutuels conduct live horse racing or jai alai moved forward.

Murmurs, and at times shouts, of a renewed gambling deal between the state and the Seminole Tribe of Florida have bubbled during Legislative Sessions stretching back nearly a decade.

But, as legislative leaders and governors come and go, finalizing an agreement — repeatedly likened to a “three-dimensional game of chess” — has proven to be just out of reach year after year after year.

The House, the Senate, the Governor and the Seminoles are the central figures in trying to reach a deal, known as a “compact.” But the talks also include the state’s pari-mutuel operators and global casino giants willing to drop big bucks on even the possibility of planting roots in Florida, a vacation destination with a growing population that’s also home to some of the nation’s most affluent citizens.

After repeated stabs at a compact fell through, speculation about an agreement involving Gov. Ron DeSantis, the Legislature and the tribe is roiling Tallahassee during the second half of the 2021 Legislative Session.

As negotiations simmer in secret, a Senate committee Monday approved two gambling-related measures unrelated to tribal casinos. But even those efforts could be a long shot.

Senate President Wilton Simpson, a Trilby Republican, has taken the reins on a prospective deal with the Seminoles, as he has for the past three years.

Simpson is trying to advance a deal designed to recapture tens of millions of dollars a year that evaporated after the state conceded that hugely popular “designated player” games conducted at many pari-mutuel cardrooms violated a 2010 compact with the Seminoles. That compact, struck by former Gov. Charlie Crist and state lawmakers, gave the tribe “exclusive” rights to operate banked card games such as blackjack in exchange for a minimum annual payment of $150 million to the state.

Simpson has worked with the Seminoles to nail down a 30-year compact, but he was unable to convince DeSantis and House leaders to endorse a plan during the past two Legislative Sessions.

But this year, Simpson holds a powerful post as Senate President, and the compact could be part of horse-trading as the Governor and House Speaker Chris Sprowls, a Palm Harbor Republican, seek to cement their legislative priorities.

After weeks without public movement on gambling issues, the Senate Regulated Industries Committee on Monday approved a bill (SPB 7076) that would create a five-member “Gaming Control Commission” to oversee gambling operations in the state. It also approved a bill (SPB 7080) that would do away with a requirement that many pari-mutuel facilities conduct live horse racing or jai alai games to offer more-lucrative card rooms, a process known as “decoupling.”

The decoupling proposal, however, could face hurdles during the final three weeks of the legislative session.

Florida voters in 2018 approved a constitutional amendment that banned live greyhound racing at the state’s dog tracks but allowed operators to continue to conduct card games and to offer slots in South Florida.

Pari-mutuel operators for years have pushed for decoupling, but critics say the card games are a reward for continuing to support the state’s once-glamorous racing and jai alai industries.

The Senate plan approved by the committee Monday would affect pari-mutuels that have harness racing, quarter-horse racing and jai alai. Those facilities would no longer be required to offer the races or jai alai games while continuing to operate poker games or slot machines, which are allowed in Broward and Miami-Dade counties.

The Senate decoupling plan would not affect live racing at the state’s two thoroughbred tracks, Gulfstream Park in Hallandale Beach and Tampa Bay Downs in Hillsborough County.

Thoroughbred breeders and owners support the plan, but a Gulfstream executive told the Senate panel Monday that allowing other pari-mutuels to do away with live racing and jai alai would put the track at a disadvantage in South Florida.

“The consequences of creating an uneven playing field among slot permit holders would be devastating to the Florida thoroughbred industry, which is one of the largest agricultural sectors in the state of Florida,” said Mike Rogers, president of the Stronach Group, which owns Gulfstream.

Rogers noted that Florida first authorized pari-mutuel wagering in 1921.

“We’re very concerned that this path could jeopardize thoroughbred racing on its 100th anniversary,” he argued.

The Senate proposal would allow the state’s only harness-racing track — Isle Casino Pompano — to do away with horse racing and keep slots and poker.

But Sen. Ray Rodrigues, an Estero Republican, questioned the rationale behind decoupling harness racing while requiring thoroughbred tracks to continue live races.

“I think everyone has seen that with the quarter horses and the standard quarter horses and the jai alai, that many of the facilities that are doing that are really just going through the motions. I don’t think most people would view what’s happening there as legitimate contests,” Rodrigues said.

Thoroughbred races are “legitimate races, competitive contests … so excluding them, I think, that makes sense,” he added.

Harness racing “also appears to be legitimate,” Rodrigues said, asking committee Chairman Travis Hutson what the “thought process” was behind allowing harness racing to decouple.

Hutson, who sponsored the bill, said thoroughbred track owners did not want to be included in the decoupling plan but harness-racing permit holders “did not have that same vibe.”

“They were kind of 50-50 on whether they wanted to be decoupled or not,” Hutson, a St. Augustine Republican, added.

The Florida Standardbred Breeders & Owners Association, however, opposes the approach.

Harness racing or standardbred racing “enjoys a tradition in Florida that is over half a century long, and it’s doing quite well,” Lauren Jackson, a lobbyist for the organization, told the panel.

“If the casino that holds the sole harness-racing permit is allowed to decouple, the entire industry would be left with nowhere in the state,” she said.

Rodrigues voted in favor of the measure Monday, but expressed reservations.

“The testimony we’ve heard today does concern me, particularly because I think harness racing is still legitimate racing,” he said.

Under the other measure approved by the committee Monday, members of the proposed gaming commission would be appointed by the Governor and require Senate confirmation.

The House Commerce Committee is slated to consider similar proposals on Wednesday.

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