With the Florida legislative session concluding last week– again with an anti-climactic finish as far as gambling regulation is concerned – casino executives’ focus turns to a Florida Supreme Court case in July that could shape the state’s landscape.
If plaintiff Gretna Racing, based way up in northwestern Florida, wins its argument that it has the right to offer slot machines because voters approved them in a referendum, then five other counties stand to also add slots, via a similar argument. If that’s the case, the state’s promise for Seminole slot exclusivity outside of South Florida goes out the window, and a compact negotiated between Governor Rick Scott and the tribe – but stalled in the legislature – would be nonsensical. They’ll have to start over.
And waiting on that Gretna case to be determined brought about some foot-dragging in this year’s legislative session, said Steve Geller, a former Florida state senator and former president of the National Council of Legislators from Gaming States.
“I think next year, more likely than not, if the supreme courts rules by fall on the Gretna case, then you have the conditions for a compact,” Geller said.
Meanwhile, blackjack, baccarat and other table games continue at the five Seminole properties outlined in a 2010 compact, and they’ll likely still be rolling along when the legislature convenes next spring, even though that portion of the compact expired in July.
“The Tribe is going to take time to carefully consider all of its options,” Seminole spokesman Gary Bitner said.
We’ve been here before. In 2007, the Seminoles and then-Gov. Charlie Crist reached a compact for blackjack, only to see it voided by the courts, who ruled that the legislature also must sign off on such an agreement. The tribe was beginning to pay more than $200 million per year to the state, and they had already begun offering the games. So they simply kept the tables open, while the courts and the legislature worked things out.
“I think they’ll do exactly what they did last time,” Geller said.
The tribe, meanwhile has a suit against the state pending, declaring that their compact was voided because the Division of Pari-Mutuel Wagering approved games similar to Ultimate Texas Hold ‘em, Pai Gow Poker and War. Pari-mutuels has argued the games pit player vs. player, and thus are OK under current laws because they are classified as poker.
An agreement between the state and the Seminoles is only one step, though, Geller notes. The Department of Interior still must review compacts and agree that the tribes are receiving an adequate benefit for the money they are paying. News reports show that under the Obama administration, the department has been viewed as more Indian-friendly, and has been more likely to reject compacts.
Geller also points to the legislative makeup as being more promising this year, especially because Sen. Bill Galvano, who helped negotiate the first compact, will be able to devote more attention to the issue, having been occupied with reapportionment heading into last session.
“He understands it probably better than anyone,” Geller said. “Having Bill’s full attention and involvement would clearly help to create a compact.”
And with the compact could come upgrades to South Florida racetrack casinos, such as a lower slot tax and the addition of blackjack. Legislators say those proposals on their own can’t pass, but have a chance as part of an overall plan that includes more revenue from the Seminoles.
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