Special Session on Seminole Compact: How we got here

Poker Chips with roulette, gambling games concept.
The stakes keep getting higher every time a gaming compact is in play.

Another Special Session starts Monday, to try to sort out decades of disputes over gambling in Florida that has many billions of dollars on the line.

The pot keeps building, and this year the stakes have never been higher.

Blame Lawton Chiles.

The Seminole Tribe of Florida and Florida’s Democratic Governor for most of the 1990s fought for years, in and out of court, over whether the Tribe could have slot machines. Lawton’s answer was no. The U.S. Department of Interior eventually backed him up, because slots simply weren’t legal in Florida.

Or blame Jeb Bush.

In 2004 Florida’s Republican Governor struggled with his personal, moral objection to gambling. Florida voters had just approved an amendment to the Florida Constitution allowing slot machines at pari-mutuel tracks and frontons in Miami-Dade and Broward counties. Bush did not want Florida’s big expansion of legalized gambling to happen on his watch and did all he could to delay implementation.

Still, shortly before Bush left office in 2006, Florida’s first slot machines began spinning. Naturally, the Tribe wanted them too. Federal law says if a specific gambling game is offered anywhere in the state, it’s available to be offered on tribal lands too. With no gaming compact agreement addressing slot machines, the Tribe quickly moved to provide its own. As Bush left office, he left the unfinished business of dealing with the Tribe’s big ambitions to his successor.

Or blame Charlie Crist and Marco Rubio.

Crist  — then Florida’s Republican Governor, now a Democratic Congressman wanting to become Governor again — and the Tribe reached agreement in 2007 for a new 25-year gambling compact, covering slot machines. Rubio — then Speaker of the House but now a Republican U.S. Senator — was angry that Crist didn’t run it through the Legislature. So he sued. The Florida Supreme Court found problems with the compact and tossed it. The Legislature passed new law in 2009 requiring Crist to negotiate a new compact under terms dictated by the Legislature, and requiring that compacts be ratified by the Legislature. That summer, Crist and the Tribe worked up another agreement, very different from their 2007 compact. The Legislature ratified the 20-year compact in 2010.

Or blame Rick Scott.

Crist’s 2009-10 deal had an opt-out clause for the Tribe on revenue sharing. If Florida allowed certain games outside of Tribal lands, the Tribe could stop paying, up to $400 million annually, to the state. After Crist and Rubio had left office, the Tribe claimed such an expansion had happened, with blackjack at some non-tribal pari-mutuel card rooms, giving the Tribe the right to offer blackjack games. The Tribe sued. A federal judge agreed with the Tribe. For a while, as the Tribe’s act of good faith, the money kept flowing, in amounts less than $400 million but close to $300 million, good money.

The next Republican Governor, Scott had multiple tries to negotiate a new compact that the Legislature would accept, but couldn’t get it done. He also had the option of pursuing an appeal of the federal case, which some thought had the chance to make federal law. Instead, Scott settled the court case, effectively dropping claims to the money. The Tribe, tired of waiting for a new deal, eventually stopped paying, two years ago.

Now, it’s Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis and the 2021 Legislature’s turn. to see if they can fix it, or join in the blame for future battles.

This time, the plan could make Florida second only to Nevada as a gambling destination.

For Florida taxpayers, the result may be a half-billion dollars or more in gambling revenue sharing each year for 30 years. For the Tribe, it means the stable assurances of a 30-year contract and a slew of new opportunities, including sports betting, online betting, fantasy sports, craps, roulette, and bingo.

At the table are several national and international casino gambling corporations, the Seminoles’ two big casino operations, dozens of smaller casinos or game rooms, internet gambling, thoroughbred racing, harness racing, horse breeding, off-track horse or greyhound dog race betting, fantasy sports games outfits, South Florida development interests, opponents of gambling expansion in Florida, the Florida Constitution, and what’s left of the state’s once-iconic greyhound racing and jai alai enterprises.

The past decade has seen numerous failed attempts to replace the compact, almost all playing out in the course of thousand-issue regular Legislative Sessions. This time, the Legislature has five days and just one issue, the 75-page Seminole Compact, though involving numerous related bills.

The last Seminole Compact to be signed, the 2009 agreement, was approved in the 2010 Legislative Session, but that actually was hammered out the year before, in 2009’s SB 788. The far-more fractious 2009 Legislative Session set the parameters for Crist’s negotiations and the ground rules for what the Legislature was prepared to accept.

Consequently, in 2010, when there was a Seminole Compact in hand, there was just one committee hearing and little debate on the ratification bill, SB 622, in 2010. Lawmakers were freed to vote as they wished and the SB 622 was approved in the Senate Regulated Industries Committee by a 6-1 vote, on the Senate floor by a 29-9 vote, and on the House Floor by a 74-39 vote, with coalitions mostly of Panhandle and Central Florida social conservatives voting no.

Scott Powers

Scott Powers is an Orlando-based political journalist with 30+ years’ experience, mostly at newspapers such as the Orlando Sentinel and the Columbus Dispatch. He covers local, state and federal politics and space news across much of Central Florida. His career earned numerous journalism awards for stories ranging from the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster to presidential elections to misplaced nuclear waste. He and his wife Connie have three grown children. Besides them, he’s into mystery and suspense books and movies, rock, blues, basketball, baseball, writing unpublished novels, and being amused. Email him at [email protected]


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