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Seminole Compact Passes First Committee

Rep. Jose Felix Diaz (R-Miami)
Rep. Jose Felix Diaz (R-Miami)
Rep. Jose Felix Diaz (R-Miami)
Credit Florida House of Representatives
Rep. Jose Felix Diaz (R-Miami)

A proposed gaming agreement between Florida and the Seminole Indiana tribe is moving forward, but legislative leaders don’t expect discussions surrounding the bill to end soon.

Members of the House Regulatory Affairs Committee passed a measure Tuesday to ratify the $3-billion dollar gambling agreement negotiated by the tribe and governor’s office. Rep. Jose Felix Diaz (R-Miami) chairs the committee.

“It is a product of countless conversations, a seemingly endless back and forth of negotiations and a mountain of reading that has all but consumed the lives of those involved in the negotiations,” Diaz says.

Diaz was involved in the compact negotiations and is charged with ushering the committee’s gaming bills through the process.  Lawmakers tied the compact ratification bill to another bill that deals with gaming outside of the tribe’s activities.

“Basically what this bill does in about 100 pages is it decouples greyhounds, decouples harness racing, decouples quarter horses, decouples Calder, it creates a purse pool for Tampa Bay,” Diaz says.

The measure also bars officials from issuing new permits and requires them to void any dormant permits. It approves new locations for slot machines and caps the number that are allowed and requires those who continue greyhound racing to report injuries.

But it’s that first idea—decoupling horse racing that has members of the horse industry concerned. Decoupling means pari-mutuels facilities would be able to continue offering certain types of cards games without being required to hold a certain number of races. Gordon Reese represents the Florida thoroughbred breeders. He says the change could hurt his industry.

“My concern at this point is how did we get to the point where the gaming industry is more important than a billion dollar agricultural based thoroughbred industry state-wide, which employs 12,000 people with an annual payroll of over $400-million? How can we pass a bill where the fiscal impact has not been determined where you don’t know what the impact will be on your constituents,” Reese asks.

But Rep. Halsey Beshears (R-Monticello) says it might be time for the horse industry to make changes.

“You know in term of your business and that’s what it is, you need to look for ways to continue to change your business. You need to look for ways to change your customer. Cause that’s what happened. You have lost your customer here in the business and as sad as it is and it kills the industry, it kills your industry, which overall does hurt [the agriculture industry] and hurt Florida, unfortunately your customer has left you,” Beshears says.

The legislation also paves the way for slot machines at some pari-mutuels, but not others, lawmakers questioned how officials made that decision and Diaz, says that decision generally reflects efforts to protect tribe exclusivity.

“The Seminole Tribe has varying levels of discomfort with where their exclusivity is encroached upon. And Lee County specifically is a point of higher heart burn specifically because it is so close to the Immokalee land,” Diaz says.

But Diaz has said willing he’s pursue the possibility of adding more pari-mutuels to the list that could offer slots under the compact, including Gretna, where voters have already approved the move through referendum and lawyer are fighting for a permit in court.

Meanwhile, the House committee also approved a measure that would require any future gaming changes to get approval from voters. And Winter Haven Republican Representative John Wood proposed an amendment to require a similar vote before passing the compact this time. And while the move failed, that’s something Rep. David Richardson (D-Miami Beach) says he wonders about too.

“Going forward if it would require referendum, why would we not put the issue of these issues before the people now. So I’m just trying to figure out why we trust ourselves to make good decision, but we’re not going to trust future legislators,” Richardson says.

But Diaz says a referendum on the current compact proposal wouldn’t be possible without changing timelines and getting approval against from both the governor and the tribe. And Diaz told reporters after the meeting the measure requiring voter approval for future changes will likely be an important part of pushing the compact through the legislature this time.

A Senate committee was also expected to vote on gaming changes Tuesday. But after lawmakers proposed significant changes the committee chair decided to postpone the vote. Diaz says he wouldn’t be surprised if discussions on the bills continue up to the very end of the legislative session.

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