Tallahassee touts, who’ve barely had time to get the pollen sprayed off their luxury SUVs since the Legislature folded up its tent three weeks ago, may want to bide their time before booking luxury vacations.
Capitol insiders heaved a collective groan Thursday after legislative leaders revealed they’re in the midst of behind-the-scenes talks that could lead to a special session before mid-summer.
Sen. Bill Galvano and Rep. Jose Oliva, Republicans who will take over as the leaders of their chambers later this year, have resuscitated persistently elusive gambling issues, as they explore a deal with the Seminole Tribe.
In the waning days of the 2018 session, Galvano and Oliva scrambled to reach consensus on byzantine gambling legislation that addressed a panoply of issues, including blackjack, roulette, craps and slot machines.
But a school-safety measure prompted by the Feb. 14 massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland eclipsed the gambling proposal, along with much other business, as the regular session drew to a close in early March.
The main reason for the revived interest in gambling issues, according to the GOP leaders, is a $400 million ante; that’s about how much the Seminoles currently pay the state for the “exclusive” right to run banked table games, such as blackjack, at most of the tribe’s casinos and to operate slots outside of Miami-Dade and Broward counties.
After a protracted legal battle, a federal judge sided with the tribe in a clash over whether lucrative “designated player games,” operated by many of the state’s pari-mutuel facilities, breached the exclusivity guarantee granted to the Seminoles.
The state and the tribe reached a temporary settlement, in which the Seminoles agreed to keep making the payments until Saturday. The weekend deadline sparked the push for the latest round of negotiations, Galvano and House Speaker Richard Corcoran said Thursday.
The designated player games are just part of the gambling puzzle. The tribe and the gambling industry in general are awaiting the outcome of litigation over controversial electronic games found in bars, strip malls and restaurants. Critics and a Tallahassee judge contend the “pre-reveal” games are unregulated slot machines.
The tribe also is paying close attention to so-called “internet cafes,” which the Seminoles’ lawyer, Barry Richard, claims are hosting illegal slot machines.
The Seminoles won’t reduce or stop payments to the state unless the disputed games have caused a “material economic impact” or “they feel they’re paying more money for the exclusivity than they’re getting value for,” Richard said.
“They (the Seminoles) have an increasing number of businesses that are coming in and that are blatantly violating their exclusivity,” he said in an interview. “They’re easy things to fix. … The Legislature hasn’t fixed those things. I don’t think it’s the tribe’s purpose to punish the state of Florida, but I think they want to get a fair value for their money.”
Lawmakers like Galvano, who’s been a chief legislative gambling negotiator for years, are eager for the cash-related certainty a new compact with the Seminoles would provide.
“The goal would be to have stability, and to know what to expect in terms of revenue share from the tribe and not be left in this ambiguous state where the tribe can stop paying, legally or not, and point to unresolved issues as the basis for their cessation,” Galvano, R-Bradenton, told The News Service of Florida.
But not all legislators are convinced of the urgency a special session implies.
According to Sen. Audrey Gibson, a Jacksonville Democrat who will take over as the Senate minority leader after the November elections, Galvano and other lawmakers had plenty of notice that the Seminoles’ payments could come to a halt.
“One full year after talks began on an agreement with the Seminoles, the subject was barely discussed until the last days of session when the budget conference was convened, too late for any real chance to pass a bill,” Gibson said in a statement Friday.
Gibson’s message also included a few words that could create even more dread for those whose anticipated time away from the Capitol could turn gloomy, should a special session come to fruition.
If they’re coming back to deal with gambling, Gibson urged lawmakers to add “a more thorough vetting of the measly” increase on school spending to the special session. While public schools will get more money next year, critics say the amount that can go to covering basic school operations would amount to 47 cents a student.
Whether an extra month or two will help gambling negotiators resolve what’s been a perpetually perplexing matter involving not only the tribe but the state’s numerous pari-mutuel operators and anti-gambling interests, such as Disney, remains a mystery.
“The tribe is always willing to talk to the Legislature,” Richard said, noting that legislative leaders hadn’t presented a proposal to the Seminoles as of Thursday evening. “The tribe is always open to discussion.”
For the second time, a federal judge this week smacked down Gov. Rick Scott and the Florida Cabinet, who make up the state Board of Executive Clemency, for their willy-nilly process of restoring voting rights.
U.S. District Judge Mark Walker on Tuesday permanently blocked the state from moving forward with what he called a “fatally flawed” process of restoring the right to vote to convicted felons. Walker gave the state until April 26 to come up with a new system after striking down the current process as unconstitutional.
The Tuesday order came after Walker issued a ruling Feb. 1 that sided with the voting-rights group Fair Elections Legal Network. In that ruling, Walker found the state’s voting-restoration process is arbitrary and violated First Amendment rights and equal-protection rights under the U.S. Constitution’s 14th Amendment.
Also in the Feb. 1 ruling, Walker asked both sides to propose a new method to restore voting rights to ex-felons, who now must wait five or seven years after their sentences are complete to apply to have their rights restored in a process Walker said gives “unfettered discretion” to the board.
In a brief filed last month, attorneys for the state argued that Florida could permanently do away with the restoration of civil rights, sparking a rebuke from Walker in Tuesday’s order.
“This court is not the Vote-Restoration Czar. It does not pick and choose who may receive the right to vote and who may not,” Walker began Tuesday’s 22-page order.
Relying on a footnoted quote from legendary screen character Rocky Balboa, Walker mocked the defendants, writing that they claimed “the current scheme is all sunshine and rainbows.”
Walker accused the state of choosing to “essentially repackage the current scheme” that would allow Scott and the clemency board “to do, as the governor described, ‘whatever we want’ in denying voting rights to hundreds of thousands of their constituents.”
“This will not do,” the federal judge scolded.
Under the current system, felons must wait five years before applying to have their civil rights, including the right to vote, restored. Felons who have been convicted of certain violent crimes or sexual offenses must wait at least seven years before seeking a hearing to have their rights restored.
Once an application is made, the process can take years --- and big bucks --- to complete, and involves extensive documentation, such as certified copies of charges, judgments and other court documents.
Since the changes went into effect in 2011, Scott --- whose support is required for any type of clemency to be granted --- and the board have restored the rights of 3,005 of the more than 30,000 convicted felons who’ve applied, according to the Florida Commission on Offender Review. There’s currently a backlog of 10,085 pending applications, according to the commission.
In contrast, more than 155,000 ex-felons had their right to vote automatically restored during the four years of former Gov. Charlie Crist’s tenure, according to court documents.
Scott hasn’t said whether he intends to appeal Walker’s decision, but a spokesman said Florida elected officials, not judges, have the power to make decisions about clemency.
“This is outlined in Florida’s Constitution and has been in place for more than a century and under multiple gubernatorial administrations,” Scott spokesman John Tupps said in a statement. “The governor continues to stand with victims of crime. He believes that people who have been convicted of felony offenses including crimes like murder, violence against children and domestic violence, should demonstrate that they can live a life free of crime while being accountable to our communities.”
STORY OF THE WEEK: A federal judge permanently blocked Florida’s “fatally flawed” process of restoring voting rights to convicted felons, giving the state until April 26 to come up with a new method.
QUOTE OF THE WEEK: “Speech is an essential mechanism of democracy, for it is the means to hold officials accountable to the people. … Florida’s current scheme inverts that important democratic mechanism. It cannot do so anymore.” U.S. District Judge Mark Walker, in an order permanently blocking the state’s vote-restoration process.
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