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State Leaders Study Late Proposal For A Gambling Compact

Patxi Goicolea/flickr

Gov. Ron DeSantis and his staff continued Wednesday to scrutinize a proposed gambling agreement, but the odds of closing out what some lawmakers have called a “three-dimensional game of chess” grow dimmer as the clock winds down on the legislative session.

After weeks of negotiations, Sen. Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, and representatives of the Seminole Tribe reached a tentative deal on Tuesday. DeSantis and House Speaker José Oliva received an outline of the agreement, known as a “compact,” on Tuesday.

Details of the plan remained one of the Capitol’s best-kept secrets late Wednesday, but DeSantis has confirmed that the proposal would open the door to sports betting in Florida.

By allowing the tribe to serve as a “hub” for sports betting at the state’s pari-mutuels and at professional sports arenas, Simpson has hoped to sidestep a constitutional amendment approved by voters in November. The amendment requires statewide votes on proposals for casino-style gambling. Voter approval is not required for gambling on tribal lands, which is regulated under federal law.

DeSantis, a Harvard Law School graduate who is questioning the amendment’s effect on sports betting, appeared to be in no hurry to finalize a deal in time for the Legislature to ratify it by the scheduled May 3 end of the session.

“We’re going to meet with people from the Seminole Tribe. I want to meet with the pari-mutuels that are obviously affected by it and talk to folks to see what their deal is with all this. But this is a major, major deal. When you talk about a 31-year deal, that’s not something to be entered into lightly,” the Republican governor told reporters Wednesday.

Bringing more folks into the discussions could doom the deal, however. Reaching a consensus between the governor’s office, the House and the Senate has proven elusive for years.

Crafting a proposal that satisfies the competing interests of dog and horse tracks, jai alai frontons, South Florida “racinos” and the Seminoles, and at the same time wins support from anti-gambling legislators and businesses --- with a newly elected governor who may be unfamiliar with the players --- remains a Sisyphean task in the final days of the session.

Speaking to reporters Wednesday afternoon, Galvano indicated the gambling issue is now in the governor’s hands. Under a deal, the Seminoles would pay hundreds of millions of dollars a year to the state.

“What you have is a very high-level negotiation between sovereigns. If I hear back from the governor that he feels like they start making progress, then we’ll look at where we are procedurally and then take what steps are necessary, if we still have adequate time to be able to secure those funds,” Galvano, R-Bradenton, said.

But some insiders questioned the Senate’s strategy of bringing the deal to the governor before getting Oliva’s blessing. Other elements in the deal also raise doubts about whether the House has the votes to pass it.

The agreement under discussion would authorize sports betting --- something Galvano is keen on --- and would also significantly pare controversial “designated player” games offered at many of the state’s pari-mutuel cardrooms.

That could be a deal-breaker for the House, where many lawmakers have ties to local pari-mutuel operators.

The Seminoles --- and a federal judge --- have maintained that the card games violate a 2010 gambling agreement with the state that gave the tribe “exclusivity” over offering banked card games, such as blackjack. But the pari-mutuel cardrooms, especially those that are not allowed to have slot machines, have grown to rely heavily on the lucrative and popular games as their major source of revenue.

Oliva indicated late Tuesday night that time is running out and indicated a desire to protect the state’s pari-mutuel operators.

“If we’re going to take up gaming, I think that it should be comprehensive and we should look at all of the different stakeholders,” Oliva, R-Miami Lakes, told reporters. “Some of those folks are sharing a lot of their opinions with us now. But I do think that, if we’re going to take up gaming, gaming affects anybody that’s in that industry in Florida, so we should make sure that they’re all heard.”

A 31-year agreement with the Seminoles could add another decade to the 20-year compact originally signed in 2010.

Under that agreement, the Seminoles agreed to pay the state $1 billion over five years in exchange for “exclusivity” over banked card games, such as blackjack. The card games portion of the compact expired in 2015, but the Seminoles sued the state over the designated player games, alleging that the designated-player games breached the exclusivity agreement. A federal judge agreed, prompting former Gov. Rick Scott and the tribe to enter a settlement in which the state promised to aggressively enforce the games and the Seminoles agreed to keep paying about $350 million in annual payments. The settlement expires at the end of May, however, setting off the latest round of negotiations.

The House and the Senate did not include the revenue from the tribe in their budget proposals, and lawmakers are now hashing out the differences between the chambers’ two spending plans.