The chairman of the Senate Gaming Committee turned off the lights on a comprehensive gambling measure that could have allowed resort casinos in South Florida, telling the chamber that he lacked the votes to advance it and is instead deferring to Gov. Rick Scott.
Sen. Garrett Richter made the announcement Thursday during afternoon floor debate on the chamber's nearly $75 billion budget.
"It has become increasingly apparent to me that, even on our committee, reaching consensus on a 400-page gaming reform bill just is not in the cards," Richter, R-Naples, said.
The committee "will not bring up or introduce the big, huge proposed committee bill" at a meeting next week, Richter said.
"We don't have a consensus in the committee," he said.
Richter's comments Thursday made official growing speculation that lawmakers would not pass any comprehensive gambling measures during the 2014 session, even after spending $400,000 on a gambling study and after the Senate held a series of meetings across the state on the issue.
House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, has for at least a month insisted that his chamber would not approve any legislation until Scott completed negotiations with the Seminole Tribe of Florida about a portion of a 20-year gambling deal that will expire in mid-2015. Scott has given no indication how far the talks have progressed.
The negotiations center on part of a 2010 compact that gives the tribe exclusive rights to operate banked card games like blackjack at five of their seven facilities for five years. In exchange, the tribe agreed to pay the state a minimum of $1 billion.
Under the agreement, the Seminoles can halt the payments if slot machines exist anywhere outside of Broward and Miami-Dade counties, excluding those operated by other tribes. The tribe can also reduce its payments if the South Florida pari-mutuels are allowed to have banked card games, or if slots are authorized at any facilities that weren't already operating in Broward or Miami-Dade, except for Hialeah Race Track, when the deal was signed.
The elements of any new deal hinge on the tribe's exclusive rights to have certain games, even if only in specific geographic areas, and revenue paid to the state. Federal law requires any revenue-sharing agreement with the state to include something of value for the tribe, and the feds have to sign off on any compact struck between Florida and the Seminoles.
"I think we can reasonably expect an agreement soon that may significantly alter revenue-sharing or exclusivity provisions. If we put the gaming reform cart in front of the Seminole compact horse, we run the risk of getting policies at cross-purposes. The wiser course is to be patient and to address comprehensive gaming reform in the context of a compact ratification," Richter said.
Scott's office gave the same response it has provided to reporters for more than a month when asked about the compact.
"With the gaming compact set to expire in 2015, we will take the time needed to get the best deal for Floridians," Scott spokesman Frank Collins said in an email on Thursday.
Sen. Andy Gardiner, an Orlando Republican who will take over as president after the November elections, was at the podium when Richter made his comments Thursday afternoon. Gardiner, an ardent opponent of gambling expansion, gave gambling lobbyists gathered in the Capitol's fourth-floor rotunda hope, even as Richter dashed this year's dreams.
Addressing Richter, Gardiner said that, although he disagreed with Richter on some gambling issues, work on the bill "allowed us to air that out in public and put everybody on notice that several of us will be here next year and we will be pursuing a gaming bill," Gardiner said. "I look forward to being here next year and congratulating you on passing that gaming bill."
Whatever deal Scott strikes with the tribe would have to be approved by the Legislature. The Senate's proposal included two destination casinos, while the House plan would have opened the door for a deal between gambling giant Genting Group and Gulfstream Park to open a hotel casino in downtown Miami.
Rep. Jim Waldman, D-Coconut Creek, told The News Service of Florida last week that House Democrats would block any compact that did not include some expansion of games for "racinos" in Broward and Miami-Dade counties that already have slot machines in addition to card rooms. House Select Committee on Gaming Chairman Rob Schenck conceded that the Democrats' votes would be necessary to approve a compact. The House includes nearly two dozen conservative Republicans who vote against any gambling-related legislation.
Out-of-state gambling operators now have to hope that the compact would not forbid casinos from opening in South Florida or, at the least, that the introduction of the casinos would not significantly reduce revenues from the tribe.
"Having a time certain deadline that everybody's up against is important. We didn't have that working for us," said Brian Ballard, a lobbyist who represents the Palm Beach Kennel Club and Resorts World Miami, which owns the downtown Miami property proposed for a casino. "If nothing happens, the state loses money and the Indians lose exclusivity. That's a big deal. That's always been the most important issue driving this."
While Richter acknowledged defeat on this year's gambling overhaul, he said the committee will meet next week to hear proposals that would require tracks to report greyhound injuries (SB 742) and discuss eventually doing away with the dog races altogether.
"Even if comprehensive reform is not in the cards for this session, we need to keep trying to find a graceful transition away from greyhound racing,'' Richter said. "For it to have any chance of success, industry representatives need to face up to the reality of where we are and to work with us on this transition that can serve the public's interest."