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Nancy Smith

Decoupling Still Threatens, but Unlikely This Year

March 2, 2016 - 7:00am

Though the deck is still stacked against them, Florida horsemen dodged a bullet in the Senate Tuesday -- and probably in the Legislature during the 2016 session -- when lawmakers postponed further discussion of sweeping changes in Florida gambling law.

Time is running out. The session ends March 11. 

"I'm not saying nothing is going to happen here," said Appropriations Committee Chairman Tom Lee, R-Brandon, after the morning meeting. "We're working to get something done, but it's not easy and time is running out." 

If the issue dies as expected this session, it would represent a reprieve for those in the pari-mutuel industry opposed to decoupling. But probably that's all. 

Leaders in both chambers, and even the governor, want decoupling and want to make room for slot machines at pari-mutuel facilities in at least five counties outside Broward where voters have asked for it. That's unlikely to change. For now, each of the parties is risking a $3 billion gambling deal between the state and the Seminole Tribe, asking the Seminoles to accept concessions they are unlikely to make.

Thursday might be the last chance for the Senate Appropriations Committee to come to an agreement with the House, if gambling is even discussed. Lee said he could not guarantee HB 7109 or SB 7205 would come up at all.

Lee told reporters there are three factions who want their own way on the gaming bill: "I call this the wealth distribution bill," he said. "You have the (people involved in the) ransom being demanded by the compact and the massively large expansion of gambling in Florida. You have the group that believes we should just let the litigation play itself out. And you have folks who are trying to broker a deal to get something."

Presumably, horsemen fall into the category of people caught up in the "massively large expansion of gambling" -- although Lee failed to mention the Seminoles aren't driving the gambling expansion, the governor and Legislature are.

Barry Richard, a lawyer for the Seminole Tribe of Florida, told the News Service of Florida's Dara Kam, "Everybody recognizes the issue is the pari-mutuels. To me, it makes no sense. And that's why I'm not assuming that it's over," he said. 

Some of us will always wonder whether Rep. Matt Gaetz introduced his strike-all amendment in the House because he knew neither the Seminoles nor the U.S. Department of the Interior would accept it, and he knew that would kill it. Was it a way of stifling gambling expansion and squaring things with casinos and track owners who have given lawmakers so much money, by putting the onus on the Tribe?

And if you're cynical, as many horsemen are, you might think there are other avenues to thwart those in the pari-mutuel industries. For example, SB 832 and HB 707, Joe Negron's and Matt Gaetz's Fantasy Sports bills, are still live and virtually identical and enjoy a plethora of political support.  

Critically, these bills are challenged by a Chapter 550 citation stating that fantasy sports events would be illegal if they are held on horse-related events.

A next step could be to procedurally bring up these bills and amend them to include "except in certain circumstances." That way they could be made to apply to just about anything germane to Chapter 550, even defining the type of facility that could be excepted, or decoupled. 

It could also be a good place to create a Gaming Commission, with the excuse of overseeing Daily Fantasy Sports and have Sen. Maria Sachs' bill language dropped in (which would then contain a Chapter 550 citation).

Clever stuff.

Other horsemen suggest another scenario: With the compact on hold, they say, think how desperate the state will be to find revenue from somewhere, anywhere. With the cat out of the bag on the advanced deposit wager (ADW) taxation, consider the possibilities to pull the wool over their eyes on decoupling. Legislators could drop language from HB 7109 into one of the many sales and use tax bills out there now. Two dangers:

  • That horsemen would have a window of opportunity to increase their fair share of ADW revenue. But it would be used as a dangled carrot to get them to agree to decoupling/purse pools.
  • That another Chapter 550 citation on any ADW language could accomplish the same thing as the first danger.

Horsemen have a great deal at stake. They need to get in everybody's face, not just while the Legislature is in session. They need to stick together, stay engaged, stay focused, lean on their elected officials on all levels and fight back with regional economic audits. 

Reach Nancy Smith at or at 228-282-2423. @NancyLBSmith

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