May 01, 2015

Seminole Tribe urges governor and Legislature to resume compact talks

Frustrated by the lack of progress over talks to renew their gaming compact with the state, the Seminole Tribe of Florida sent a letter Friday to Gov. Rick Scott and the Florida Legislature urging them to resume negotiations to allow them the exclusive right to operate black jack and other card games in exchange for payments to Florida.

"The certainty provided by a multi-year agreement to renew the banked card games would allow the Tribe to move forward with plans to invest over $1.6 billion in capital improvements and hire thousands of new employees,'' the Tribe said in a statement accompanying the letter. "The State would further benefit by receiving billions of dollars in exclusivity payments from the Tribe over the term of the new agreement."  

The Tribe wants to renew the portion of the gaming compact that expires on July 31 that allows them to offer banked card games at five of its seven casinos. Legislative leaders had been in negotiations as recently as last week with tribal lawyers, but those talks ended when the House abruptly adjourned in the face of a budget impasse and left town three days early.

Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, one of the Senate negotiators, said last week that the two sides had "made some progress." 

On Friday, a majority of the Senate remained in Tallahassee, awaiting word on a lawsuit brought against the House by Senate Democrats. 

“The Tribe remains hopeful that negotiations can commence soon to reach an agreement that will result in favorable action during a special session of the Florida Legislature,'' the  Seminole statement said.

"By letter delivered today to the Governor, President of the Senate and Speaker of the House, the Tribe has formally renewed its request for negotiations in accordance with the federal Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, which requires the State to negotiate with the Tribe in good faith and provides the Tribe with certain remedies if no agreement is reached within 180 days.”

Here's the letter.

April 22, 2015

Bradley: Gambling bills face long odds as compact discussions are now underway

Senate Regulated Industry Committee Chairman Sen. Rob Bradley said Wednesday that discussions with the Seminole Tribe and the Senate are underway over the resolution of the portion of the gaming compact with the state.

But "there is such a large distance between the two parties” that he expects it “will be very difficult to come to a meeting of the minds” before the session ends on May 1. The casualty, he said, is likely to be passage of any gaming bill this session. 

“The Senate’s position has been consistent, we think when it comes to gaming you deal with the compact first and then deal with these other issues,'' he told the Herald/Times. "We are not going to recommend to our members a deal that doesn’t make sense for the people of the State of Florida.

"Until we arrive at a situation with our negotiations with the Tribe, where we have such a deal, then we’re not going to move forward."

That could mean that any attempt by the House to schedule passage of its sweeping gaming bill, HB 1233, could be in trouble. Or it could mean that the chilled relations between the chambers over the budget and health care impasse are also interfering with progress on other priority bills. In other words, is it posturing? 

House Majority Leader Dana Young, R-Tampa, has signaled the importance of the gaming bill to her this session, first by drafting a massive rewrite of the state's gaming laws that included widespread expansion of gambling options throughout the state.

Facing resistance from conservatives in the House, Young scaled down the bill and on Tuesday the House Finance and Tax Committee voted 10-8 to pass a plan to open the door to slot machines in Palm Beach and Lee counties, but only if approved by legislators, the governor and the Seminole Tribe.

Also included in the plan are two issues important to Young, the so-called "decoupling" of dog racing that makes racing greyhounds optional at tracks that operate poker rooms or slots casinos and requires race tracks to report all dog injuries to the state. 

Bradley, a Fleming Island Republican, said that until the compact is resolved, the Senate is not ready to take up that bill.  

“The only issue we are comfortable peeling off would be the injury reporting issue – the bill that we passed on the first day,’’ he said, referring to the dog injury reporting bill named after former Senate President Don Gaetz's wife, Victoria Gaetz.

“As far as those other gaming issues – whether it be decoupling, the Palm Beach and Lee County slots, the Senate’s position is we deal with the compact first and then we have a comprehensive package,'' Bradley. 

April 21, 2015

House committee squeezes out gaming bill to phase out dog racing as promoters keep heat on

House F and T gamingThe calm in the lobbyist-packed room belied the intensity of the behind-the-scenes battle underway to end the House’s resistance to gambling expansion.

Before the Finance and Tax Committee met, House Speaker Steve Crisafulli added Rep. Jim Boyd, R-Bradenton to the committee -- an extra vote of assurance to help the bill make it through the tough committee.

As the vote looked close, lobbyists Ron Book, Brian Ballard and Sean Pittman quietly met in the corner of the meeting room with Rep. Hazelle Rogers, attempting to get the Lauderhill Democrat to end her opposition to the bill. The lobbyists represent Palm Beach and Naples tracks who have been trying for years to get slots at their tracks.

In the end, a last-minute switch by Republican Rep. John Tobia of Melbourne Beach to support the bill, and a decision by Rep. Frank Artiles, R-Miami, to miss the vote, brought HB 1233 to victory.

The vote was 10-8 for what could be the most expansive rewrite of Florida’s gaming laws in a decade, when voters authorized slot machines. It opens the door to expanding slot machines at the Palm Beach Kennel Club and the Flagler Race Track in Naples if agreed to by the Seminole Tribe in a legislatively-approved compact. 

Most important for its author, Rep. Dana Young, R-Tampa, it "decouples" the requirement that greyhound tracks continue to race a minimum number of races in order to operate the more lucrative poker rooms or slots casinos and requires tracks that continue to race to report all dog injuries. 

Young urged her colleagues to vote for the bill "on behalf of the thousands of racing greyhounds that are bred and live their lives to do nothing but run around a circle with no one watches." 

But the measure still faces steep hurdles. The Florida Senate is awaiting a vote on its version of gambling expansion -- a plan that would also extend the compact with the Seminole Tribe for one year.

Animal activists who want to end dog racing aren't taking any chances. Starting Tuesday, Grey2K USA launched an aggressive email and phoning campaign urging their supports to appeal to lawmakers to pass the bill. 

"There are ten days left in the Florida legislative session, and we are very close to a major victory for the dogs!,'' the email states. "In the next few days, the Florida House of Representatives will vote on House Bill 1233, a very important measure that will help thousands of greyhounds. HB 1233 includes two important new laws: it will decouple dog racing from other types of gambling, and also will require that greyhound injuries be reported to the public.

"Please contact your State Representative right away and ask for a YES vote on House Bill 1233." 

Photo: Gaming lobbyists Ron Book and Brian Ballard leave their seats during a meeting of the House Finance and Tax Committee meeting before they meet with Rep. Hazelle Rogers at the side of the room. By Mary Ellen Klas

April 09, 2015

House committee votes to authorize slot machines in two more counties

CasinoThe ice is melting on Florida’s gambling debate. 

After being frozen in inaction for the last several years because of powerful competing interests, House and Senate committees this week approved legislation to end the requirement that greyhound tracks race dogs, and opened the door to the expansion of slot machines at Palm Beach and Lee counties.

The House on Thursday moved the debate even farther when the GOP-dominated Regulated Industries Committee also voted to require Miami-Dade and Broward counties to conduct either a local referendum, or an affirmative vote of the county commission, to determine whether legislators should authorize destination resort casinos there.

The local vote is intended to give cover to reluctant lawmakers to approve the plan to bring Las Vegas style resort casinos into South Florida to compete with the Seminole Tribe’s Hard Rock resort. The vote would have to be conducted by Dec. 31, in time to bring the issue back to the legislature when it meets in regular session starting January next year.

But steep hurdles remain.

Continue reading "House committee votes to authorize slot machines in two more counties" »

April 08, 2015

Senate explodes narrow gambling bill as House contracts its plan

CasinoThe reliably precarious debate over the future of gambling in Florida continued its uncertain path on Wednesday when a Senate committee voted to end the requirement that horse and dog tracks operate live races and the House revised its gaming bill and excluded destination resort casinos.

But leaders say both plans appear headed for change.

The Senate Regulated Industries Committee narrowly approved a series of pro-gaming amendments to a SPB 7088 Wednesday that would have extended a portion of the gaming compact with the Seminole Tribe for one year. The amendments allow dog tracks in West Palm Beach and Naples to start operating slot machines, require that 10 percent of all slot machine revenues at the new racinos subsidize thoroughbred purses at Tampa Bay Downs, and give all pari-mutuels the option to end live racing. 

But the amendments prompted the committee’s chairman, Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, to vote against his own bill and predict that it will be modified if it is going to survive in the Senate.

"I would suspect that if we have a gaming bill come out of the Senate, it will look probably a bit different than what you saw come out of this committee today,’’ Bradley said after the meeting.

Meanwhile, House Republican Leader Dana Young released a revamped gaming bill, HB 1233, that shrinks her ambitious 316-page gaming bill to 59 pages and removes all opportunities for gaming expansion in Florida, including the opportunity for Miami Dade and Broward to offer destination resort casinos.

Continue reading "Senate explodes narrow gambling bill as House contracts its plan" »

April 07, 2015

House folds its ambitious gambling bill

House Republican Leader Dana Young on Tuesday confirmed what has been speculated for months: this won't be the year for gaming expansion, destination resort casinos, or even new games for the Seminole Tribe.

Young released a revamped gaming bill, HB 1233, that signals her long-held goal: to end greyhound racing as we know it by ending the requirement that dog tracks operate live racing in order to offer card games or slot machines.

The proposal, quietly released on Tuesday, shrinks the 316-page bill to 59 and removes all opportunities for gaming expansion in Florida. 

It provides a lifeline, however, to the 12 remaining greyhound tracks whose owners increasingly say dog racing is costing them money and want the option of phasing out of the sport. State regulators also say that the cost of regulating greyhound racing is higher than the tax revenue it brings in.

Young, a dog advocate, also uses her bill to require tracks that continue to race greyhounds to adhere to strict new requirements to report all dog injuries. The provision, named after Victoria Q. Gaetz, the wife of former Senate President Don Gaetz, passed the Senate last year but failed to make it through the House on the final day of the legislative session. 

The previous version of Young's bill was the subject of a workshop of the House Regulated Industries Committee, where support for the ambitious overhaul appeared slim. 

Young's plan attempted to expand some gambling operations while contracting others. It opened up the opportunity for two destination resort casinos to operate in Miami-Dade and Broward counties, phased out dog racing and unused racing permits, capped any future gaming expansion, ended tax credits for pari-mutuels, and created a state gaming commission to provide streamlined oversight of the industry.

Young's revamped bill eliminates all those provisions, except the dog racing provisions and caps on permits. 

The Senate Regulated Industries Committee is scheduled to vote Wednesday on its scaled-back proposal to offer up a one-year extension of the gaming compact with the Seminole Tribe. The compact is scheduled to expire on July 31.

Amendments to that bill, SPB 7088, if passed, could open the door to allowing some additional gambling -- such as slot machines at the Palm Beach Kennel Club.

Another amendment, by Sen. Maria Sachs, D-Boca Raton, would track Young's proposal to end the requirement for live racing at dog tracks, a provision known as decoupling.

April 03, 2015

Senate answers gaming call -- proposes one-year extension of compact to buy time

Florida Sen. Rob Bradley announced Friday that he wants to expand the current gaming compact with the Seminole Tribe of Florida for one year to buy time to continue negotiations.  

Bradley, R-Fleming Island, chair of the Senate Committee on Regulated Industries, said he filed legislation to extend the provision of the compact that expires on July 31 for one year. The measure is scheduled to come before his committee next week. 

“Gaming is a complex issue with many stakeholders who have diverse viewpoints, opinions, and ideas. An extension of the current compact is a common sense solution to the time sensitive environment in which we find ourselves,'' Bradley said in a statement. "This approach allows the tribe to maintain the jobs associated with their current operations and the state to continue to receive revenue which can be used to advance our budget priorities."

Bradley's proposal is a scaled-down counterpoint to the massive gaming reform offered by the House. The House bill, which was the subject of a workshop last weke, would allow for the expansion of gambling across the state, usher in resort casinos in Miami Dade and Broward, give pari-mutuels in Palm Beach and Lee counties slot machines, and end dog-racing at the greyhound tracks that also operate poker rooms.

The bill is so broad that questions remain whether it's author, Republican Leader Dana Young, R-Tampa, could get the votes among the traditionally gaming-averse House. 

“Providing more time for all parties to continue this important discussion about the future of gaming in our state will ensure we find the right policy rather than the quick answer,” Bradley said. 

Seminole Tribe tries to woo lawmakers with ad in Tallahasssee

The Seminole Tribe of Florida isn't pulling its punches.

As the future of the tribe's gambling compact with the state hangs in the balance this legislative session, and with a new approach to gaming proposed by House Majority Leader Rep. Dana Young, the Seminole Tribe is trying to force lawmakers to hear their position.

In new ads on TV and radio in Tallahassee, the tribe has this message: "We know the Seminole Compact works. Let's keep it going."

March 26, 2015

House committee workshops gambling plan but progress looks dim

The odds of passing a sweeping rewrite of the state’s gambling laws appeared to dim Thursday as a House committee began debate on a draft proposal to expand gambling in Florida and ended with no commitment to take up the bill for a vote.

Meanwhile, progress appeared to be occurring on another gambling debate -- behind closed doors – as key lawmakers confirmed they continue to talk about renewing the portion of the gaming compact with the Seminole Tribe that expires in July.

“I would describe our discussions as having been more detailed than they have perhaps been in the past,’’ said Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, the chairman of the Senate Regulated Industries Committee.

He said that he has been in meeting with tribal negotiators “over the past several days” as the Seminoles discuss renewing their exclusive agreement with the state to operate black jack and other banked card games in return for an estimated $136 million in revenue sharing each year.

Continue reading "House committee workshops gambling plan but progress looks dim" »

March 19, 2015

Seminole Tribe: House and Senate are posturing but serious talks are not underway

CasinoThe Florida Seminole Tribe is on the defensive. 

After five years of quietly writing a monthly check to the state as part of the landmark gaming compact that gave them the exclusive right to operate black jack, chemin de fer and baccarat at their Hard Rock casinos, Gov. Rick Scott and the Florida Legislature have sent a signal that they may not renew the deal when that portion of their agreement expires in July.

In an effort to make the case to continue the deal that drew at least $1 billion in revenue for the state over five years, the Tribe has broken its silence.

In the last month, it paid for a statewide television ad, espousing the value of the gaming compact. It financed a statewide poll, that showed that most voters support continuing the gaming compact. It launched a lobbying campaign to “educate” legislators about why provisions in the compact stifle the gaming “creep” that happens when states allow non-tribal gaming to expand.

And on Wednesday, the tribe’s general counsel and chief executive agreed to a rare on-the-record interview with the Herald/Times Tallahassee bureau and the News Service of Florida.

“We want to see if there is a way to extend the contract before it expires. We’re still early in the game,'' said Seminole General Counsel Jim Shore. "We’re trying to figure out where everybody is on the compact or gaming issue.”  

Here’s what we learned:

Continue reading "Seminole Tribe: House and Senate are posturing but serious talks are not underway" »