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Governor is asking legislators to consider returning for special session on gambling compact

With a week to go before the end of session, Gov. Rick Scott’s deputies are taking the pulse of the Florida Legislature about their interest in coming back to ratify a compact with the state and the Seminole Tribe of Florida.

The details of a proposed agreement are sketchy, and legislators who have discussed it with them say they don’t have details, but it does appear that the proposed deal would not expand options for the state’s pari-mutuel industry.

“President Gaetz and Lt. Governor Lopez-Cantera recently discussed the ongoing negotiations,'' said Katie Betta, Gaetz's spokeswoman in a statement. "President Gaetz told the Lt. Governor that he would be interested in learning more, if negotiations are finalized. He did not ask, nor was he informed of specific details, as the negotiations are ongoing." 

Working on behalf of the governor is his chief of staff Adam Hollingsworth, his general counsel Pete Antonacci and his Lt. Gov. Carlos Lopez Cantera. In addition to Gaetz, House Speaker Will Weatherford has been approached to agree to a special session in May to ratify the deal.

Any agreement the governor reaches with the tribe must be ratified by the Florida Legislature, where Republican proponents of gaming have joined with their Democratic counterparts to push for an expansion of gambling options at Florida’s pari-mutuels and to bring resort casinos to South Florida.

Still unknown is what it would take to get an agreement through the House and Senate, where sympathies are strong for the state’s pari-mutuel industry.

Many legislators say that to get the votes for a compact, the governor will have to find a way to help Florida’s gaming establishment compete with the tribe — or unify the anti-gambling lawmakers to support a compact that is close to status quo. For most of his term, the governor has not been an aggressive negotiator in the face of a divided Legislature.

“I will lead the effort to defeat ratification of the compact if it’s a sellout to the Indians the way the last one was,’’ said Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, who supports expanded gambling. “We penalized a lot of other facilities that had been in business in Florida for 60 and 80 years and gave the Indians a monopoly. I think that’s wrong.”

As we reported earlier this month, the strategy the governor may employ is to call the special session after he has received the budget and then hold off on his vetoes until he gets the vote to get it passed.

Under that scenario, the governor or legislators would call a special session to ratify the deal after he receives the state budget and the governor would strategically use the power of his veto pen to help win approval from reluctant lawmakers. The most politically powerful time for a governor to have a special session is before he has issued his vetoes.

But to do that, the governor would need an assurance that he could get the votes and avoid an embarrassing defeat on a controversial issue. 

Rep. Jim Waldman, D-Coconut Creek, said he has asked the governor office for details about the proposed compact but has received no answer. 

"To not be keeping us in the loop is in my opinion a lack of leadership,'' Waldman said. "Why do we have to do it in the next week. The compact doesn't expire until next year. It is something that should take quite a bit of deliberation. That's what took place with the first one."

Because the House and Senate are likely to need Democratic votes to ratify any gaming agreement, Waldman told Weatherford that he expects the governor to give them more information. 

"If we are not involved in any of the discussions, the liklihood of us going along is very slim,'' he said. 

Scott spokesman Frank Collins confirmed, "There is no deal." He also said, "there has been no request for a special session,'' although he couldn't answer why the governor's staff was asking legislators to consider a special session in May.