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Lawmakers Call Off Gambling Talks After Reaching Impasse On Referendum Counties

Credit Jeff Kubina

Lawmakers have folded on plans to pass a comprehensive gambling overhaul bill this legislative session.

After years of waffling, the Gambling discussion in the Florida legislature this session appeared to start strong—with members in both chambers indicating a commitment to pass sweeping legislation this year. Senator Bill Galvano expressed that commitment when he presented a gambling plan on the Senate floor.

“I can’t tell you if we’ll ultimately reach a full resolution this session, but I can tell you that the major interests and the people who would be part of this resolution, such as the Seminole Tribe of Florida, the Florida House, the Governor’s office—they also understand that at this point, inaction is not an option,” Galvano said.

Galvano led his chamber’s side of the gambling negotiations with the House. He and his counterpart Representative Jose Diaz have been eyeing the impact a number of court decisions could have on the state’s gambling landscape. Diaz says that concern was enough to cause his chamber, which is generally opposed to any gambling expansion, to consider a few compromises.

“We maintain the position that the great expanders of gaming are really the courts—the First DCA and the Federal Courts—they continue to take positions that expand gaming in Florida and if we really want to curb gaming and we want to have a thoughtful future for gaming in Florida we need to make some strides to expand a little so that we won’t have to expand a lot,” Diaz said.

In the end, Diaz says the two chambers couldn’t see eye-to-eye on a number of issues including blackjack and even Bingo. But Diaz says one of the biggest sticking points was what to do about eight counties that have held referendums supporting the operation of slot machines in their communities.

“Our speaker has been pretty consistent about referendum counties. He did not want to expand gaming massively and he and a lot of others in the chamber felt that that was a massive expansion,” Diaz said.

But Diaz points out the Senate also played a role in creating that impasse.  Senate President Joe Negron has come out in strong support of giving those eight counties licenses to operate slots.

The voters went to the polls. These are the same voters that elected us. They went to the polls. They know what the amendments say, what the referendums say, and they have voted to grant their community more gaming opportunities and it is not the place of the legislature the substitute our judgment for the judgment of voters,” Negron said.

Diaz says the timeline was another sticking point that made a deal too tough to reach this year since the Senate had hoped to pass a gambling plan in tandem with the budget. And that’s something Negron has mentioned before.

“My interest in doing a gaming bill this session significantly decreases if we’re not able to deploy the funds available that we’re not currently holding as a state that have been paid to us. These are the state funds,” Negron said.

Negron is talking about approximately $2-million the state has received from the Seminole Indian Tribe since its agreement allowing the tribe to offer black jack expired. The tribe has continued to offer blackjack at its casinos and has continued to share its revenue with the state. The state has been holding that money in a separate account until a new deal with the tribe can be settled. But Galvano says there’s nothing actually stopping lawmakers from using that money anytime they want. Meanwhile, Diaz is leaving open the possibility of gambling special session depending on how the courts rule in a pending case on those eight referendum counties.

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