Fla. Legislative Leaders Ready To Take Up Gambling Again Next Session

Aug 3, 2012

Gambling in Florida takes many forms, whether it’s the state lottery, dog tracks with poker rooms or full-scale resort-casinos. This year, lawmakers tried to create a state gaming commission to regulate all the various options in a more uniform way. At the same time, they tried to invite huge new casinos to Miami. Those measures died, but some policy makers are already planning on how to attack the contentious issue of gambling again, even though the next legislative session is more than half a year away.

On the 15th day of every month, the Seminole Indian tribe writes a pretty hefty check to the state of Florida. In exchange, the tribe gets exclusive rights to operate slot machine casinos in 65 of Florida’s 67 counties. This year, the amount the tribe pays is going up, from $150 million per year to $233 million. It’s all according to the state’s compact with the tribe, which the Legislature approved in 2010 after almost two decades of negotiations between the tribe and the state.

Spokesman for the Seminoles, Gary Bitner, says the agreement is a win-win.

“The tribe’s made every payment on time, and really feels like it’s a solid partner in the state of Florida, with the opportunity to provide funds for education or other needs in the state," Bitner says.

The tribe operates seven casinos with slot machines, and part of that revenue helps fund public schools, state colleges and universities and financial aid programs. This year, slots revenue is expected to make up about 10 percent of those funds.

But some lawmakers want to limit gambling, even if it means losing the revenue stream. Florida Senate President designate Don Gaetz, a Destin Republican, says gambling revenue is simply too unreliable. 

“The position I’ve taken is that our critical services for Florida—education, health care, public safety, the environment—shouldn’t be funded based upon a gamble that we’re going to receive those revenues by expanding casinos in the state of Florida," he says.

This year, Gaetz voted against a hotly debated bill that would have paved the way for three so-called mega-casinos in Miami. Opponents labeled it as a vast expansion of gambling, as it would have ushered in multi-billion-dollar facilities described as "cities under a roof." Some of the most vocal challengers were the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association and Walt Disney Company, who feared tourism cannibalism and what they saw as a black mark on Florida’s family-friendly status.

But the bill’s House sponsor, Republican Rep. Erik Fresen, of Miami, says 80 percent of the measure was about increasing regulations on gaming.

“If I could be king for a day and I had a magic wand, I would eliminate all gaming in Florida, starting with what I see is the most predatory form of gaming, and that’s the state-sponsored lottery," he says.

Fresen says, a proliferation of horse and dog tracks, poker rooms and jai alai games have helped make Florida the No. 4 biggest gaming state in the nation, based on revenue. And, he says, the legislature needs more control over taxing and regulating them. Fresen is up for reelection and is on the campaign trail before the August 14 primary. He says, if he’s reelected, he has a new strategy for attacking the issue because last time, his message about the need for regulation got drowned out by the mega-casino debate.

“We have to set up an environment to which that conversation can take place at an adult level and outside of bumper stickers and 30-second ads," he says. "And I think the only way to do that would be to create a stand-alone committee that, essentially, is tasked singularly with looking at the entire state of gaming in Florida and to come back with some sort of a comprehensive plan.”

A legislative gaming committee would need to be created by leadership of both chambers in the legislature. And incoming House Speaker, Will Weatherford, a Wesley Chapel Republican, has recently said he’s ready to tackle the issue. He told the Miami Herald, that could mean reexamining the Seminole compact, part of which is automatically up for renegotiation in 2015.

Hoping to stay on lawmakers’ minds, gaming operators from Florida and as far away as Malaysia have been contributing more than $600,000 to candidates and committees since the beginning of 2011.

Rep. Fresen says, despite what he sees as powerful lobbies on both sides of the issue, he has faith in his fellow lawmakers to put aside their personal feelings and take a closer look at the complexity of gaming.  

“It’s kind of like this floating thing out there, of whether you want to be tagged as 'pro-gaming' or 'anti-gaming,' which is something I think people have to start dismissing after a while if you want to have a serious conversation about this," he says, "because it’s really not about what you want; it’s about what’s better for the environment in Florida."

No matter who’s elected to the Florida Legislature in November, Senate President Gaetz says, gaming reform is likely to be high on many lawmaker’s agendas, and, he says, he’s open to having the debate.