No one is showing cards yet, but a gambling compromise could be coming

The ice is melting on Florida’s gambling impasse.

House and Senate leaders have agreed to pass their respective bills off the floors of their chambers to set up a gaming conference for as early as next week. It’s not a sign that there is a deal. But it is a sign that they’re taking the issue of shoring up their gaming revenues seriously as they head into discussions over the budget.

“It’s the first time we’ve had a gaming bill on the floor since 2010,” said Sen. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, the Senate’s lead negotiator on gaming issues. “Something’s happening.”

The Senate gave preliminary approval Wednesday to SB 8 and is expected to be approved by the full Senate on Thursday. The measure would give Miami-Dade and Broward counties each an additional slot casino, the Seminole Tribe would have seven full-scale casinos, and horse and dog tracks in at least eight counties would get new slot parlors.

By contrast, the House Commerce Committee is expected to approve its gambling bill, PCB TGC 17-01, on Thursday which would reenact the current gaming compact that gives the tribe the exclusive right to slot machines outside of Miami-Dade and Broward and blackjack at their South Florida casinos in exchange for $3 billion in payments to the state over seven years.

If approved, the Senate plan would amount to about $525 million in first-year revenues, and revenues after that could amount to about $450 million, Galvano said.

Unlike the Senate, the House wants to ban parimutuels from adding slot machines in the eight counties where voters have authorized the games — Brevard, Duval, Gadsden, Lee, Hamilton, Palm Beach, St. Lucie and Washington counties — and would reverse court rulings that have allowed parimutuels to operate designated-player games, popular alternatives to poker in many card rooms throughout the state.

Central to the debate is the Seminole Tribe of Florida, which has warned House and Senate leaders that both gambling bills demand too much money for too little in return for them to support.

A recent decision by a Leon County Circuit Court that determined slot machine look-alikes found in bars across the state are not illegal gambling devices has helped to elevate the tribe’s leverage over the Legislature’s deliberations.

In a letter to legislative leaders last week, the tribe warned that the so-called “pre-reveal” games approved by the court have been considered gambling devices in other states. They said that if Florida allows them to proliferate it would breach the provisions of the 2010 gaming compact which is supplying about $116 million in annual revenue to Florida’s treasury. Under the terms of the deal, lawmakers have until the end of the session to close the loophole or lose the money.

The court ruling was also noticed by parimutuels, convenience stores and gaming centers across the state who signaled an interest in installing the machines without having to seek a gaming license.

The district court ruling was a “game-changer,” Rep. Jose Felix Diaz, R-Miami, chairman of the Commerce Committee and lead negotiator on gambling issues for the House, told the Herald/Times. “If the federal court ruling was a curveball, this was a spitball.”

Galvano, the sponsor of the Senate gaming bill, agreed.

“We need to get this together and resolve these things going forward or we’ll have no revenue and there’ll be gaming where ever someone has made a good argument that it should exist,” he said.

However, unlike the House, Galvano wants a comprehensive gaming package, not a piecemeal approach. If the Legislature fails to act to clarify ambiguous language in the ever-changing gaming environment, “talented legal counsel, able to make good arguments” are persuading courts to change the effect of state law, he said.

The result is that the revenue share from the tribe is affected, “the future relationships between the tribe is impacted, and what we collect from the tax on regulated [parimutuels] is impacted,’’ he said.

After each chamber passes the bills, a conference committee will be appointed as early as next week to work out the differences.

The differences between the House and Senate proposals are vast. The Senate opens the door to massive expansion of slot machines and Indian gaming, while the House attempts to retract gaming and preserve protected markets for horse and dog racing and tribal gaming for another 20 years.

Both bills also attempt to renew and expand the provisions in the gaming compact with the Seminole Tribe. Since October 2015, when the blackjack provisions of the current compact expired, the tribe has been continuing to make monthly payments to the state as part of revenue sharing from the card games. But the state is not spending the money until the compact is renewed or a new one is approved by the Legislature.

Also part of the discussion will be whether or not to regulate daily fantasy sports leagues in Florida. On Tuesday, the House Tourism and Gaming Control Subcommittee passed HB 149, by Rep. Jason Brodeur, R-Seminole, without discussion. The measure “will clarify that fantasy sports is not gambling,” Brodeur told the committee.

“It is almost a pastime for a significant number of Floridians, so I don’t think that we need government to regulate it,” Brodeur said after his bill passed. “It’s almost self-regulating.”

The Senate, however, defines daily fantasy sports leagues as gaming, regulates them and address the growing popularity of E-sports — video based competitions that involve an element of chance.