With a referendum regarding gambling in the state being held during the 2018 midterm elections, the Florida Legislature had a final shot to make any moves regarding the state’s gambling laws. Instead, the politicians in Tallahassee punted the subject down the road, ensuring that there would be no further changes to the state’s regulations at least for the 2018 calendar year.
As the close of the legislative session loomed this week, both leaders in each chamber of the Florida Legislature revived the discussions on gaming in the state. Those two men, House Speaker Richard Corcoran and Senate President Joe Negron, would be facing starkly different roads to coming to an agreement, however. The job, at first glance, would have been easier for Negron, with a Senate willing to expand gaming where voters had approved of it, rather than Corcoran, who would have to convince fellow Representatives that have shown previously to be anti-expansion.
Negron’s Senate contemporaries were the first to fire off, approving an expansion of gambling in eight counties that had previously passed new laws. Those laws would have allowed pari-mutuel outlets – horse and dog racing tracks and simulcast locations – to offer slot machines to their customers. The problems would develop when the bill was sent to the House for consideration.
The House wasn’t quite as willing to go with the plan, however. After at first completely rejecting the Senate plan, the House eventually came to the point where it would allow three of the eight counties to offer slot machines to their customers. Discussions with House members to allow all eight eventually would result in the Senate bill dying in the House, much to the consternation of their leadership.
“Despite the good faith efforts of both the House and Senate, a gaming bill will not pass the Legislature this session,” Corcoran and Negron said in a statement quoted by The Palm Beach Post’s Dara Kam. “Gaming remains one of the most difficult issues we face as a Legislature. We are pleased with the progress made over the last week and know that our colleagues will continue to work on this important issue.”
Why is the decision by the Florida Legislature not to take up new gambling regulations important? Part of the problem is that the current compact between the state and the Seminole Indian tribe of Florida, which expired in 2015, is currently working its way through a federal court. Under question are “designated player” games that the poker rooms, pari-mutuel tracks and other gaming outlets have been using to circumvent the “house-banked” games that is the exclusive property of the Seminoles and their casinos. A “designated player” game is one in which a player in the game being designated as the “player to beat” by other players on the table, with the house winning bets on the “designated player” rather than having a hand in the game themselves.
Under the compact, the Seminoles have paid $300 million per year for that exclusivity (and have continued to pay since the compact ended in 2015), but they also see locales that are allowing for other gaming outlets to offer house-banked games under the “designated player” discipline. They want the state to be more proactive in preventing these “designated player” games that, the Seminoles contend, are cutting into the profits of their tribal casinos. But the state, while working with the Seminoles to either come to a new compact or extend the one that expired, also must contend with the individual county governments.
That is why the Florida Legislature was looking to amend their gambling laws. Many counties in the Sunshine State are looking to pass their own gambling laws, outside of the state’s purveyance and with no new statewide compact agreed upon, because they don’t see the state legislature looking out for their interests. There is also a huge desire for such tourist destinations as Miami to be able to expand their gambling options, while areas such as Orlando look to restrict any access to gambling in their area due to their “family” atmosphere.
The upcoming referendum in November also has lawmakers a bit nervous. Should the voters of Florida vote for expansion of gaming in the state, the legislature would be bound by the vote to expand gambling in the state outside of the Seminole compact. With this said, the Florida Legislature was forced by referendum to legalize the usage of medical marijuana in the state in 2016; the Legislature has been molasses-slow regarding any passage of laws regarding that issue.
While the Florida Legislature may not consider gambling expansion for the remainder of the year, there will be plenty of discussion on the subject outside of the halls of Tallahassee. What the eventual end of these discussions will be is still up in the air, however.