From tax cuts and health care to gambling and guns, here are six key issues and themes to watch for as the 2016 Florida legislative session gets underway today.
From tax cuts and health care to gambling and guns, here are six key issues and themes to watch for as the 2016 Florida legislative session gets underway today.
In the face of widespread legislative opposition to the $3 billion gambling deal signed by Gov. Rick Scott and the Seminole Tribe, the Florida Chamber conducted a statewide poll over the holidays that clearly shows that most Floridians have no idea about the issue but, when seeded with many unchecked claims, respondents overwhelmingly support it.
The compact, signed by Scott in December, would give the tribe the exclusive right to operate craps and roulette at its seven casinos and have partial exclusivity over the right to play blackjack in return for revenue sharing. But because the Legislature must approve the compact, and because of pushback from competing gaming interests, the issue will likely be one of the most challenging facing lawmakers in the session that begins on Tuesday.
The Florida Chamber, whose roster of paid members includes the Seminole Tribe, conducted a statewide poll Dec. 28-30. The chamber won't tell us if it's a poll for hire but the press release accompanying the poll emphasized the fact that those who know about the compact support it.
One thing is certain: most people know nothing about the gaming compact. At least 51 percent didn't know if the tribe had kept its agreement "to provide a minimum of $1 billion over five years in revenue to the state" and 63 percent knew nothing about the 20-year deal Scott just signed with the tribe, according to the poll by Public Opinion Strategies.
When pollsters pushed voters with information, the support then emerged. For example, 80 percent liked the claim that if the compact is approved it will save 3,500 blackjack related jobs; 74 percent liked the claim that the tribe commits to giving the state $3 billion over seven years "three times more than the prior compact guarantee of $1 billion."
Other claims were predictably popular: "the Seminole Tribe has agreed to invest more than $1.8 billion dollars in improving its entertainment facilities, creating more than 15,000 new jobs in the state" and "this agreement not only creates a cap on the amount of gaming that can be offered by the Seminole Tribe, but it also empowers the legislature to limit the expansion of other gaming across the state."
While the revenue raised is guaranteed in the compact, there are no enforcement provisions that ensure the jobs will emerge or the investment will be completed, and the pollsters made no effort to explain that. However, after the push questions, 75 percent of the 700 responding said they would approve of the Legislature signing the compact and 20 percent said they would not. In Miami Dade and Broward, the support surged from 33 percent before the claims were spelled out, to 73 percent. In Tampa, the support grew from 38 percent before the claims, to 74 percent afterward.
Another of the key findings is that 53 percent of those polled believe the state should "keep the number of gambling opportunities about the same" while 27 percent want to expand gambling and 19 percent want to reduce gambling.
When asked about whether the current gaming compact is good or bad, people are also rather ambivalent with 53 percent saying it is "somewhere in between."
Three days after Gov. Rick Scott signed a new gambling agreement earlier this month, a company that is a division of a Malaysian casino conglomerate that could benefit from the deal wrote Scott one of the biggest donation checks it has written all year to any political player in Florida.
Scott’s Let’s Get To Work political committee reported receiving a $20,000 check from Resorts World Miami - a part of The Genting Group - on Dec. 10. On December 7, Scott announced he signed a new gaming deal with the Seminole Tribe of Florida that would give the tribe exclusive rights to operate blackjack and add craps and roulette. But the deal also opens the door to expanded gaming, especially in South Florida where the Genting Group has said it wants to build a casino resort on Biscayne Bay on the former site of the Miami Herald building.
Under the new compact, the Seminole Tribe would continue to make payments to the state even in the face of increased competition from a new Miami or Broward slots casino.
The compact still must be approved by the Florida Legislature before it can go into effect. It has already received a lukewarm reception from some lawmakers who have predicted the deal will get a tough review when the Legislature meets in January.
Resorts World Miami has given over $120,000 in donations to political players in Florida this year, but the $20,000 donation is the single largest check since the company wrote the Republican Party of Florida a $50,000 check on March 3.
The Seminole Tribe of Florida has become increasingly aggressive doling out campaign donations as state leaders consider a new gaming agreement that could bring the Tribe billions more in gambling revenues.
Over the last three years, the Tribe has given more than $2.7 million to more than 90 politicians, a dozen political committees lawmakers control or the two major parties. That's more money than the Tribe gave out in the previous 12 years combined and far outpaces political donations by other gambling interests, state campaign finance records show.
"The Seminole Tribe of Florida has been, and continues to be, actively engaged on multiple levels in the political and legislative process," said Gary Bitner, a spokesperson for the Seminole Tribe of Florida.
When the Florida Legislature reconvenes Jan. 12, lawmakers will be charged with reviewing a $3 billion gaming compact that Gov. Rick Scott signed with the Tribe earlier this month. The Florida Legislature must approve the deal.
As Gov. Rick Scott on Tuesday touted the $3 billion agreement he signed with the Seminole Tribe as a way to bring economic stability to Florida’s constantly changing gambling environment, the deal faced an uncertain future in the Florida Legislature.
“I think it’s going to be a really tough road,” said Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, noting that its “fatal flaw” is that it benefits only gaming operations in three South Florida counties. “If we’re going to have to close down facilities that have been here 70 to 80 years so the Indians have a monopoly and can continue to expand their offerings, that’s just wrong.”
Even in South Florida, home to eight casinos that compete with the tribe, the criticism of the 20-year deal was strong.
“It’s very impressive that the governor got $3 billion to pick winners and losers and put longstanding family businesses like mine out of business,” said Izzy Havenick, vice president at Magic City Casino in Miami. His company won voter approval in Lee County for a slots license at its dog track in Bonita Springs — something that would be allowed only in Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties under the deal.
“From our standpoint, we get a new casino in Miami-Dade County — right next to us — and we lose any potential to be able to offer another product at our facility in Lee County,” he said. “We’re getting hit on both coasts.”
Contributing to the negative buzz over the deal was the way the governor handled the announcement. He blindsided legislators by announcing in a letter at 8 p.m. Monday that he had finalized the deal and gave no warning to the members of House and Senate negotiating team that he had reached the agreement.
“I had no idea,” said Rep. Jose Felix Diaz, R-Miami, who has spent the last five months as the House’s lead negotiator on the deal, meeting with the governor’s staff, the tribe’s representatives and senators. “My phone started blowing up when I was at the Miami Heat game.”
Attorney General Pam Bondi, whose office has authority over the enforcement of the state's gaming laws, said she hadn't yet read the proposed compact between Gov. Rick Scott and the Seminole Tribe and couldn't say whether the tribe is currently violating the law.
"I want to read the compact and see what the expansion is," Bondi told reporters Tuesday. "My goal is for Florida not to become Atlantic City; I've always said that. I don't want a casino on Longboat Key, where I grew up, and all of our beaches in the Panhandle. That's been my greatest concern, obviously. But I'd like to look at the compact and see how extensive it is."
As the tribe continues to operate black jack and other banked card games at its Hard Rock casinos and three other of its properties despite the fact that the provision authorizing those games expired in July, Bondi couldn't say if the operation of those games is illegal.
"I need to look at the compact and see what it says,'' she said. "We tried to download it this morning so I could look at it and couldn't, because obviously this happened late last night. I'm not dodging your question; I just haven't looked at it."
A day after signing a new multibillion dollar compact , Gov. Rick Scott and Seminole Tribe of Florida Chairman James E. Billie separately commended the deal as historic.
“The Seminole Tribe of Florida salutes Gov. Scott for his leadership in working with members of the Senate and the House to finalize this important compact for our 4,000 Seminole tribal members and for all Floridians,'' Billie said in a statement. "We are especially grateful to Sen. Rob Bradley and Rep. Jose Felix Diaz for the important role they played throughout the process."
Billie said the new compact "will serve Florida well for years to come" and said it saves 3,500 jobs and could create up to 15,000 direct and indirect jobs. "There is nothing more important than investing in Florida’s economy and continuing to help our workforce grow.
Reached before his meeting with the Florida Cabinet, Scott called it "an historic day yesterday" when he signed the deal to bring a minimum of $3 billion over seven years.
"The last compact five years ago was $1 billion,'' Scott told the Herald/Times. "But I'm just the first part of the process. Now it goes to the Legislature. I respect the decision of (Senate) President Gardiner and Speaker Crisafulli. It goes to them. They'll make a decision."
He noted that he understands that the Legislature must ratify it. "But if you look at the law, the law is that the governor is required to look at this first. I did. I took the time to do an historic compact. It's a good compact for the state. Again, I respect the decision of the Legislature. They'll make the final decision whether they want to go forward with this."
Scott disagreed that the provisions in the compact that allow for two new slots casinos, one each in Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties, are an expansion of gambling.
"It does not. If you look at the compact, it puts a cap on Seminole gaming and limits gaming,'' he said.
He would not answer whether he supports a reduction in the tax rate for South Florida parimutuels which is being contemplated as a companion bill to help win support from the industry.
Steve Bousquet contributed to this report.
Senate President Andy Gardiner said Monday that it remains unlikely that the House and Senate will renew the banked card games portion of the gaming compact with the Seminole Tribe in time to include the money in the 2016-17 budget.
"We’re certainly not anticipating it,'' Gardiner told the Herald/Times at a pre-session interview for the legislative session that begins Jan. 12.
He said that for a deal to be reached in time for the 2016-17 budget year, lawmakers would need a resolution “certainly by the beginning of session” because of the many hurdles involved in reaching agreement on the plan.
The Legislature must ratify any agreement between the tribe and Gov. Rick Scott. Any ratifying legislation is expected to be used by both gaming opponents and proponents across the state to insert provisions that help their cause. Among the many issues on the table, for example, is the prospect of allowing slot machines in Palm Beach County while requiring that any future expansion of gambling get statewide voter approval.
The deadline has passed for the Seminole Tribe to complete its negotiations with the state over whether it will be allowed to continue operating lucrative blackjack games at its Hard Rock casinos but the cards are still on the table.
The stakes are so high for all the parties involved in Florida’s complicated gaming landscape that legislators and the governor’s office are trying to negotiate a way to turn a deal on the card games into a blueprint for gaming across the state by the onset of the legislative session on Jan. 12.
Among the issues: the prospect of another slots casino in Miami, slot machines in Palm Beach and Fort Myers, a requirement that future gambling licenses get statewide voter approval, and the promise of $3 billion in gaming proceeds directed into the state treasury over the next 7 years.
“We’re still talking, still hashing,” said Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, the Senate’s lead negotiator who, along with the House’s negotiator, Rep. Jose Felix Diaz, R-Miami, has been meeting with the governor’s general counsel, Tim Cerio, and lawyers for the Seminole Tribe.
“We know that the money is important to the governor,” Diaz said. “We know the constitutional amendment to limit gaming in the future is important to the House. We know that local requests are important to the Senate, because they need to pick up votes. But since there’s been no big agreement, everything has been in flux.”
Photo: Lisa Johnson of Bel Air, Maryland, watches the dealer deal a hand in blackjack at the Seminole Hard Rock Casino in Hollywood in 2011. PATRICK FARRELL email@example.com
Two of the newest and biggest companies in online fantasy sports have been kicked out of Nevada, branded as illegal gambling.
New York's attorney general has accused the same companies, DraftKings and FanDuel, of misleading customers and has barred them from that state. Top officials for DraftKings last week tried to quell a growing movement in California to ban them while lawmakers in New Jersey and Pennsylvania debate whether to treat daily fantasy sports sites as games of chance.
But while other major states turn up the regulatory heat on the fast-growing industry, top Florida officials and regulators have been reluctant to weigh in. To the contrary, some powerful lawmakers who have received campaign donations from the fantasy sports lobby are trying to create a safe haven for the industry.
"Government should have little to no involvement in the recreational daily lives of Floridians," said state Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton, who filed a bill last week that would prohibit the state from treating fantasy sports companies as gambling operations. Providers would have to register with the state and provide assurances minors are not participating. A companion Senate bill has been filed by Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart, who will become Senate president next year.
Despite a 1991 attorney general opinion that declared such games illegal in the Sunshine State, current Attorney General Pam Bondi has not publicly commented on the newer version, high-dollar fantasy sports industry and has so far refrained from the types of investigations into the industry that her counterparts in New York and Massachusetts have embarked on. Gov. Rick Scott's Division of Parimutuel Waging has likewise remained silent.
The 1991 opinion, issued by former Florida Attorney General Bob Butterworth, a Democrat, declared that fantasy sports leagues which accept entry fees and distribute winnings are in violation of the state's gambling prohibition.
Bondi spokesman Whitney Ray said her office has had "extensive discussions" with the U.S. Attorney's Office and thinks the matter should be handled federally.
While facing combative legislatures in other states, the industry has found vociferous defenders in Florida.