The Senate passed a bill Tuesday that would create a state gaming commission and removed a provision that prohibits elected officials from holding a commission seat until two years after they leave office.
Sponsored by Republican Sen. Travis Hutson, the bill (SB 4A) is a major component of the gambling expansion agreement between the state and Seminole Tribe. In particular, it would establish the Florida Gaming Control Commission and crown it as Florida’s lead law enforcement agency on gambling.
As first drafted, bill language barred public officials from joining the commission until two years after they leave office.
But under the proposal as amended Tuesday by Hutson, elected officials can be nominated to the commission without a cool-off period.
The amendment drew sharp criticism from lawmakers including Democratic Sen. Jason Pizzo and Republican Sen. Jeff Brandes.
Brandes said some lawmakers will view the commission as a “legislative retirement package” that they can receive in exchange for political favors.
“Shouldn’t we at least have a little distance?” Brandes asked senators. “Shouldn’t we have a little space between Sine Die and a job that could last for 12 years and get paid $140,000 a year?”
The five-member committee would have law enforcement authority over gaming laws like unauthorized gambling and pari-mutuel institutions such as card rooms. The commission is required to staff an experienced lawyer, accountant and law enforcement.
Members would be appointed to four-year terms by the Governor and confirmed by the Senate. Each member would make $136,000 per year, an amount based on the salaries of other public service commissions, according to a staff analysis.
“It’s a cush job,” Pizzo said.
“By basically removing this section, we’re just going to create a bureaucratic thing where everyone meets and flies and gets expense accounts and makes six figures,” Pizzo said later.
Currently, the Department of Business and Professional Regulation (DBPR) oversees pari-mutuel gambling in Florida such as horse racing.
Proponents of the bill, however, contend the department is struggling to manage gaming within the state. They further suggest the state would benefit from a commission exclusively focused on gaming.
The Senate passed the bill 26-13.
It also passed a bill (SB 6A) that would create a public record exemption for the commission with a 38-1 vote. Under that measure criminal investigations by the commission would remain private until a charge is levied.
The votes come as the Legislature explores a new gambling compact with the Seminole Tribe.
The Compact, a 75-page document, will determine the long-term future of gaming in Florida.
Under the deal struck by the Governor and the Tribe, the Tribe would pay at least $2.5 billion in the first five years of a 30-year agreement, which could net the state “in excess of $20 billion” over the next three decades, Seminole Gaming CEO Jim Allen told lawmakers Monday.
Lawmakers are expected to conclude the Special Session as early as Wednesday.