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Gambling Likely To Get Big Play This Session

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Credit Michal Parzuchowski

When it comes to gambling this year, lawmakers will likely have to lay their cards on the table.

Over the last several years lawmakers have floated a number of gaming proposals--some that would change rules for greyhound racing and others that could pave the way for Las Vegas style destination casinos in South Florida. But historically those measures have stalled among arguments over the merits and dangers of a gaming expansion. Senate President Andy Gardiner has constantly been opposed to the move.

"I don’t support the expansion of gaming, but I do support the institution of the Senate to make that decision as to what direction they want to go,” Gardiner says.

This year a new gaming agreement between the state and the Seminole Tribe could force the issue. Marc Dunbar is a partner with Jones Walker LLP's Government Affairs Practice group specializing gaming law.

"I think it crystallizes the debate on what we want to be as a gambling state. The governor has done a good job sort of throwing his vision out there of trying to achieve a good fiscal number for the state of Florida—certainly well beyond that of his predecessor Charlie Christ. But also define it in a way that tries to limit the scope of gaming across the state,” Dunbar says.

Gov. Rick Scott recently hammered out the $3 billion agreement with the Seminole tribe after a piece of the current compact expired. It gave the tribe exclusive rights to offer banked card games, like blackjack. Scott says the new agreement gives the tribe the rights to add craps and roulette to its offerings. 

"Under this compact there is an obligation that the Seminoles will have to add more jobs, over 4,000 more jobs – direct and indirect. And during construction it would be over  14,000 jobs” Scott says.

Under state rules, the governor is responsible for negotiating the compact with the tribe. But before it can become law, the agreement must get approval from the legislature. And lawmakers are signaling the road to that approval could be a bumpy one. House Speaker Steve Crisafulli calls the move a “heavy lift.”

"You know there’s a lot of people engaged in that issue, a lot of conversations, a lot of communities that will be affected by the decisions that are made. And you know, whether it’s the pari-mutuels or the Indians or Disney World, everybody has a stake in the game,” Crisafulli says.

Beyond the new games for the Seminole Tribe, the compact also created a road map for a number of other changes. Including new slot machines at certain pari-mutuel facilities. But the plan doesn’t include slots for Gretna, where Dunbar says citizens have passed a referendum in support of the games. Dunbar is involved in a court case on the issue. It's heading for the state’s Supreme Court and Dunbar says lawmakers should expect to hear concerns from several other counties that have been vying for slot permits.

“You have six counties around the state in addition to Dade and Broward that have voted overwhelmingly for their pari-mutuel facilities to have slot machines. And the governor selected one county and one county only to benefit under the new compact and I have a feeling as this works through the process those other counties like Lee County, and Brevard County and Gadsden County, Hamilton and Washington are going to have very credible arguments to say, 'hey, why are our voters less important than those in Palm Beach County?'” Dunbar says

The compact also paves the way for decoupling at pari-mutuel facilities—a move that’s been popular on both sides of the aisle, but that’s getting pushback from Florida horse associations. It would let pari-mutuels continue offering certain cards games without requiring them to hold a certain number of horse or dog races. Animal rights activists say that’s especially good news for greyhounds, which face a high risk of injury, but representatives from horse associations say that would mean far fewer jobs for horse trainers, caretakers and breeders and could have a major impact on the industry. Meanwhile, others are asking what the compact could mean for fantasy sports. Some say language banning online gaming also bans fantasy sports. But Governor Scott says the compact doesn't address fantasy sports.

Meanwhile, some are pushing to ensure fantasy sports stay legal, with closer regulation. A measure from Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Shalimar) would put fantasy sports under the purview of the Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, which oversees sweepstakes. And that’s not the only gaming related bill lawmakers have filed. Sen. Maria Sachs (D-Delray Beach) wants to create a gaming commission responsible for regulating all gambling in the state. Right now, most regulation comes through the Department of Business and Professional Regulation. Lawmakers are expected to take up those measure and decide whether to approve the Seminole Compact in the upcoming legislative session.

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