State Gaming Deal Now In The Governor’s Hands
A $1 billion gaming deal between the state and Seminole Tribe that was Gov. Charlie Crist's top legislative priority got the final OK from the Florida House on Monday, sending the measure to the governor's desk.
House members approved the gaming deal by a 74-39 vote, following a Senate vote last week, that ratifies a Crist-negotiated compact with the tribe. As part of the deal, the tribe will have exclusive rights to operate Vegas-style slot machines outside of South Florida, plus the right to operate banked card games such as blackjack and baccarat at five of its seven facilities. In exchange, the state will see a $1 billion infusion into its cash-strapped budget over the next five years.
“This is a big contribution and a big commitment,” said Rep. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, the House's lead gaming negotiator. “It's not estimated, it's not 'well, we might be able to achieve this.' This is a guarantee.”
The Seminole Tribe has long sought a compact with the state, which has been squeamish about expanding gambling. Crist has negotiated three compacts with the tribe, but this is the only one that has come with
legislative approval. The first was invalidated by the Supreme Court and the second was quashed by lawmakers who said it went too far in expanding gambling in the state.
In particular, the last two years have been pivotal in the gaming negotiations. Lawmakers warmed to the idea of expanding gaming as the budget outlook worsened, but worried about the effect on pari-mutuels in the state, which said they were struggling to compete against the tribe's casinos.
The deal includes some incentives for the pari-mutuel facilities including expanded hours for poker rooms and higher stakes games. South Florida tracks will also receive a tax break on their slot profits, cutting the tax rate by 15 percent.
But even with the sweeteners for the non-tribal facilities, some lawmakers could not support the deal, saying they still felt that many pari-mutuels would falter under the competition.
“I come from a district that has a kennel club that I think would be put of business by this legislation,” said Rep. Carl Domino, R-Jupiter, who voted against the deal.
Opponents also quibbled over the moral aspects of the legislation, warning that it could promote addiction. The deal does require each of the Seminole casinos to put up $250,000 for compulsive gambling treatment.
Rep. Charles Van Zant, R-Keystone Heights, called the bill “inherently evil,” and said money spent on gaming would “never be spent on groceries or to pay the mortgage.”
“This compact is evil and is bad business for Florida and I urge you to vote no,” he told other lawmakers as they debated the merits of the bill.
The vote was a major victory for the governor who has faced immense political backlash over the past few days following his veto of a controversial teacher tenure bill that was the priority of Republican legislative leaders. He has campaigned openly for the bill over the past several years saying the money would be used to prop up Florida schools.
He is expected to sign the bill, and it will then need final approval from the U.S. Department of Interior, which oversees state-tribal agreements.