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Special session on gaming compact? 'It's toast'

If Gov. Rick Scott was taking the temperature of the Florida Legislature last week about its interest in a special session to ratify a gambling compact, he has gotten the cold shoulder. 

Legislative leaders in both the House and Senate have all but rebuffed the governor’s offer to hold a special session in May after his deputies hinted that he was “getting close” to an agreement with the Seminole Tribe over the gaming compact that expires next year. 

“It’s toast,’’ said one high-ranking Republican Monday, who noted that the governor’s failure to offer details led many of them to conclude that he gave the tribe what they wanted.

That perception may have repercussions for the governor as he tries to appeal to casino giants for campaign cash. Las Vegas Sands CEO Sheldon Adelson and Donald Trump have both been supporters of the governor in the past but have withheld sending his political committee any contributions since he has been engaged in negotations with the tribe.

By contrast, the Seminole Tribe has given the governor’s political committee $500,000 after he opened negotiations with them on renewing their monopoly on black jack and other banked card games at their casinos.

But for any agreement to become law, the legislature has to ratify it and by Monday, legislators and lobbyists interviewed by the Miami Herald, said it was clear that the governor not only couldn’t muster the votes for it in the Senate, which traditionally is more pro-gambling, but he also barely had 30 votes in the more conservative House.

Lieutenant Gov. Carlos Lopez Cantera met privately with House Speaker Will Weatherford and Senate President Don Gaetz last week in an effort to get a sense of the support for a session to ratify the governor's pending deal. But many legislators interviewed over the weekend and on Monday said they believed that the governor's move last week showed his hand.

Although the governor didn't offer details, many lawmakers believed that he was close to an agreement that gave the tribe the exclusive ability to continue offering black jack and banked card games and possibly expand to craps and roulette. In return, they expected the governor to extract more money from the tribe each year but allow for little, if any, concession to approving destination resorts casinos in South Florida. They also expected the deal to deny any gaming expansion at the state's parimutuels.

After legislators spent the last year studying those issues -- and were prepared to allow some changes  -- they put their debate on hold at the request of the governor when he decided to open talks with the tribe. His late-session call for a special session with little input from lawmakers made many lawmakers mad.

House Democrats, for example, said they have repeatedly asked for information and have never been given it.

“If were are not involved in any of the discussions the likelihood of us going along is very slim,’’ said Rep. Jim Waldman, D-Coconut Creek. “It would be silly for us to agree to a special session now when they aren’t going to present it to us and keep us in the loop.’’

Several legislators expressed dismay that the governor has waited until the final week on several issues – from child welfare, to medical marijuana and now gambling – to inject his concerns.

“Why do we need to do it in the last week?,’’ Waldman asked. “The compact doesn’t expire until next year.”

Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville said he was approached by Lopez Cantera who said “we don’t have a deal but we might have a deal and we just want to take your temperature to see how a compact might be received.’’

Gaetz told reporters Monday that he replied: “I said, I can’t tell you how it would be received until you tell me what it is.’’ He noted that something as seemingly simple as pushing a bill to require injury reporting at greyhound tracks “turned into a pretty contentious issue."

“Anytime gaming gets mentioned,'' Gaetz explained, "it’s like red meat in the middle of the table with a bunch of carnivores around because of all the interests groups that have a stake in the process.”