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Legislative Leaders Fold on Gambling Talks

April 26, 2018 - 6:00am

After weeks of discussions between two powerful legislators, the possibility of a special session focused on perennially elusive gambling issues came to an end Wednesday.

Incoming Senate President Bill Galvano and incoming House Speaker Jose Oliva conceded they were unable to reach a deal despite self-imposed pressure to come up with a gambling plan before the November elections.

“We’ve moved on. Will revisit next session,” Oliva, R-Miami Lakes, said in a text Wednesday afternoon.

The legislators wanted to head off a proposed constitutional amendment on the general election ballot that, if passed, would give voters control of gambling expansions, decisions now largely controlled by the Legislature.

The legislative leaders had also used a potential loss of revenue from the Seminole Tribe as a rationale for a hurried special session, after lawmakers failed to reach agreement on a gambling deal during the regular session that ended last month.

But a new, yearlong deal announced last week by Gov. Rick Scott and the tribe and fears that a proposed expansion of slot machines could backfire put the kibosh on any gambling legislation, according to Galvano and Senate President Joe Negron.

Under the arrangement between Scott and the Seminoles, the tribe agreed to continue making about $300 million a year in payments through the 2019 legislative session. In exchange for the payments, which are rooted in a 2010 gambling “compact,” the tribe would continue to have exclusive rights to offer games such as blackjack at its casinos and would continue to be the state’s only slot-machine operator outside of Miami-Dade and Broward counties.

The Seminoles would keep up the payments “provided the state does not enact legislation to expand gaming subject to exclusivity under the compact during the forbearance period.”

Whether the talk of a special session sparked a renewed agreement between the Seminoles --- who are major contributors to the political committee behind the proposed constitutional amendment --- and Scott, or the other way around, is unclear.

But the resulting deal --- and the guarantee that the incoming leaders could rely on another $300 million from the tribe, and possibly more, when they craft next year’s budget --- withered the prospect of a special session.

“That reduced the sense of urgency on behalf of Speaker-designate Oliva and President-designate Galvano. I could sense that, when it happened,” Negron, R-Stuart, told The News Service of Florida on Wednesday.

The deal being considered by Galvano and Oliva would have jeopardized the income from the tribe by allowing slots in up to six of the eight counties --- Brevard, Duval, Gadsden, Hamilton, Lee, Palm Beach, St. Lucie and Washington --- where voters have approved the lucrative machines at local pari-mutuels, an element the Senate has supported. To compete for the six new slot machine licenses, pari-mutuel operators would have had to relinquish active permits, a “contraction” of gambling pushed by House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’ Lakes.

The gambling operators also would have had to make some sort of guarantee for a minimum amount of revenue to the state to offset potential losses from the tribe.

But supporters of the “Voters in Charge” proposal, which will appear on the November ballot as Amendment 3, are asserting that the measure, if passed, could apply retroactively, meaning money from both the Seminoles and the pari-mutuels would be off the table, at least temporarily.

“That was exactly the issue” that put an end to the talks, said Negron, who will be replaced by Galvano after the November elections.

“There also was uncertainty that some attorneys believe that the constitutional amendment could be interpreted retroactively so that the expansion to the slot machine counties, which I support because the voters voted, could be stricken down and then the contraction, that’s the House priority, could be sustained. Obviously, that’s not an equitable situation,” he said. “So that issue is unclear and uncertain.”

The incoming leaders were also concerned that, once a special session on gambling was called, legislators would demand that the session be expanded to include other issues, such as funding for public schools and the controversial “school guardians” program that allows certain specially trained teachers, certified by sheriff’s offices, to bring guns to schools.

Galvano, R-Bradenton, told the News Service that he and Oliva had discussed the broad outlines of a potential deal, but that ultimately, the “revenue uncertainty” and other factors put an end to the talks.

“The potential impacts of having a retroactive application of the constitutional amendment, and the litigation and delays … as well as the managing the call” of the session ultimately caused the leaders to abandon the issue, he said, at least for now.

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