Fla. lawmakers say 'no dice' to gaming pact

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A rendering of the guitar-shaped hotel at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Hollywood.
A rendering of the guitar-shaped hotel at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Hollywood.
Robert Silk
Robert Silk

You won’t see craps or roulette in Florida casinos for at least another year after state lawmakers were unable to pass gaming legislation during the 2016 session, which ends on Friday.

The legislature’s intransigence on the gambling issue has also put at risk the Seminole Tribe’s planned $1.8 billion casino-hotel in Hollywood as well as a proposed 500-room expansion of the tribe’s Tampa casino-hotel. The Hollywood resort, to be shaped like a guitar, would rise 36 stories and house 800 rooms. But its construction is contingent upon the state of Florida entering into a new exclusive gaming agreement, called a compact, with the Seminoles. The compact the parties entered into in 2010 expired last fall.

In December, the tribe and Gov. Rick Scott came to terms on a new deal. It guaranteed that the Seminoles would retain their exclusive rights to offer blackjack and other house-banked table games in the state for the next 20 years. In addition, the Seminoles were to be allowed for the first time to offer craps and roulette at their seven casinos in Florida, most notably the Hard Rock properties in Tampa and Hollywood. As with blackjack, that privilege would be exclusive to the tribe.

In turn, the Seminoles were to pay Florida $3 billion over the next seven years.

But the legislature still had to sign off on the agreement, or at least pass alternative legislation for the Seminoles and Scott to consider. Instead, they allowed the deal between Scott and the tribe to die.

I. Nelson Rose, a professor of gambling law at Whittier College in California who was a legal consultant to the Florida Senate during the 2010 compact negotiations, said the gambling bill proposed in the legislature this year failed because, “it was a Christmas tree with too much on it.”

For example, it would have allowed slot machines at pari-mutuel tracks in five new counties, a proposal that opponents of gambling expansion found unacceptable.

But Marc Dunbar, a Florida-based gaming lawyer with the firm Jones Walker, says that’s not what actually happened. He said that last week he negotiated and drafted an agreement that had the approval of the Seminoles as well as support in both the House and the Senate. But the amended legislation was blocked from even receiving a hearing from the Senate Appropriations Committee by the Senate president, Andy Gardiner, a consistent gambling opponent.

“He knew that a very different deal was going to be before the committee and instead he chose to take it off the floor, so it couldn’t go to a vote,” Dunbar said.

In either case, the next salvo in the battle over gambling in the Sunshine State is likely to come in July, said Dunbar, when the federal court in northern Florida hears a Seminole claim that Florida violated the exclusivity agreement the parties entered into on table games in 2010 when it allowed pari-mutuel facilities in South Florida to offer digital blackjack and other digital card games.

The court will also hear Florida’s counter-claim, asking that the Seminole’s existing blackjack tables and other house-banked games, such as Pai gow poker, be shut down since the compact has expired.

Dunbar said that if the Seminoles lose, he expects them to appeal, perhaps as far as to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Rose said he expects the tribe will, in fact, lose. But as a practical matter, Florida won’t do anything to stop the existing games.

He said Floridians and visitors to the state should expect the status quo when it comes to gambling until next year, when the legislature will attempt to tackle the dicey issue of gambling yet again.

A previous version of this report mistakenly said the Seminole Tribe was to pay the state of Florida $3.1 billion over the next seven years.

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