Florida legislative leaders are expected to decide this week whether to pursue a special session to expand slot machines in some counties while it asks the Seminole Tribe to renew its gaming deal with the state, but the head of the No Casinos effort on Monday called the idea a "last ditch effort by gambling interests" and a lawyer for the tribe s there is no need to hurry.
In a letter to House Speaker Richard Corcoran and Senate President Joe Negron, John Sowinski, president of the group that has put a constitutional amendment on the November ballot that will inhibit gambling expansion, suggested it was "a fictional crisis manufactured by gambling lobbyists."
"The urgency of this matter is curious, since no facts have changed since the end of session that would now make this such an enormous priority that it could merit a call for a special session of the Legislature,'' he wrote.
No Casinos has succeeded in getting enough signatures to put an amendment on the ballot to require a statewide vote to expand gambling options in Florida. If the measure succeeds, legislators will have less influence over all gaming decisions.
The amendment is backed by Disney Worldwide and the Seminole Tribe, both of which oppose any expansion outside of the tribe's seven existing casinos. The amendment exempts gaming expansion if it involves Indian tribes, such as the Seminoles and their Hard Rock casinos.
Last week, Corcoran, R-Land O'Lakes and Sen. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, who has been designated by Republicans to be next Senate president, announced they are considering a special session because of budget concerns that the tribe may withhold payments to the state because of a legal settlement they reached as a result of a lawsuit in federal court over designated player games at pari-mutuel facilities.
Under the settlement, the tribe agreed not to withhold the more than $300 million in annual payments it now gives the state as part of its compact to operate casinos on its seven reservations until the end of March.
The settlement gave the Legislature enough time to outlaw the games, which the court said violated the tribal compact. Lawmakers adjourned without passing any gaming legislation and nothing has changed, except a newfound concern about the tribe stopping payment.
Barry Richard, the Tallahassee lawyer who has argued the cases for the Seminole Tribe, told the Herald/Times Monday "the only reason the tribe would terminate payment is if they think there is a substantial impact on their financial circumstances, or they think they are paying too much money for the exclusivity -- given that it's been infringed upon. Then, they would terminate or reduce the payments."
The Department of Business and Professional Regulation has been working to enforce the settlements, closing down designated player games at pari-mutuels that operated them, and "the tribe is satisfied that DBPR has been acting aggressively,'' Richard said.
However, a new threat to the tribe's bottom line has emerged: a new kind of slot-machine look-alikes that have proliferated at strip malls and convenience stores. The tribe is now suing the owners of those games and their landlords in Jacksonville and, Richard said, it is likely the tribe will let those lawsuits play out before it would withhold payments to the state. Those cases are not set for trial until June.
But, Richard added, "something is going to have to happen. They are not going to let these machines proliferate."
So is there a need for a special session?
Richard said the tribe is always open to listening. "If the legislature wants to bring them a proposal that's been signed off on by everybody, they are happy to look at it,'' he said.
But, he warned, "the tribe doesn't want to have non-productive conversation with one chamber or the legislature, or some members of leadership, and then have it go back to others who disagree with it."
Galvano confirmed Monday that he has not had any substantial talks with the tribe about the compact.
Meanwhile, Sowinski notes that many perceive the talk of a special session is more about the potential for legislators to raise money from the parimutuel industry, who are among the most reliable contributors in the state. Corcoran is a likely candidate for governor and several others are pursuing state Cabinet positions and could benefit from a special session that would attract the industry's money.
But, Sowinski argued, convening a special session could have the opposition effect if the industry wants to defeat the proposed amendment.
"You can tell the gambling interests and assure the people of Florida that public policy is not for sale in Tallahassee by resisting gambling lobbyist pressure for a special session,'' Sowinski wrote. "Convening a special session that will be seen as a genuflection to the gambling industry would provide voters with a perfect illustration of why Amendment 3 is so badly needed."
Read Sowinski's letter here: Download No Casinos letter re special session 4-2-18