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Monday July 28th 2014

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House Democrats prepared to block gambling deal with Seminoles

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By Dara Kam, The News Service of Florida

House Democrats say they will kill a new gambling deal with the Seminole Tribe unless it includes more games for South Florida pari-mutuels.

Without the support of the Democratic caucus’ 44 members, the chamber won’t be able to ratify an agreement, House Select Committee on Gaming Chairman Rob Schenck acknowledged.

“The fate of the compact is in serious jeopardy if we do not have some bipartisan support. It’s a basic principle of math,” Schenck, R-Spring Hill, said.

Schenck’s arithmetic lesson is grounded in history. The House has historically balked at expansions of gambling and, as in the past, now includes more than a dozen conservative Republicans who will vote against any gambling-related legislation. That makes putting together a bipartisan coalition critical to get to the 61 votes needed for ratification.

After twice rejecting former Gov. Charlie Crist’s agreements with the tribe, the Legislature in 2010 ratified a 20-year gambling compact, a portion of which expires on Aug. 1, 2015. The House passed the deal then with a 74-39 vote, with just six Democrats voting against it, all of them Palm Beach County representatives. They opposed the deal because it did not include a sought-after sweetener for the Palm Beach Kennel Club that would have allowed the track to have slot machines.

Just as the agreement would not have passed without the support of Democrats four years ago, a new version won’t either, said Rep. Jim Waldman, D-Coconut Creek, the ranking Democrat on Schenck’s committee.

“(Gov. Rick) Scott needs to understand that, unless he wants a Charlie Crist moment from 2009, he better talk to us and be sure that we are prepared to ratify the compact,” Waldman said.

Scott is in negotiations with the Seminoles over a part of the compact that gives the tribe exclusive rights to operate banked card games like blackjack at five of their seven facilities for five years. In exchange, the tribe agreed to pay the state a minimum of $1 billion.

Under the agreement, the Seminoles can halt the payments if slot machines exist anywhere outside of Broward and Miami-Dade counties, excluding those operated by other tribes. The tribe can also reduce its payments if the South Florida pari-mutuels are allowed to have banked card games, or if slots are authorized at any facilities that weren’t already operating in Broward or Miami-Dade, except for Hialeah Race Track, when the deal was signed.

The elements of any deal hinge on the tribe’s exclusive rights to have certain games, even if only in certain geographic areas, and revenue paid to the state. Federal law requires any revenue-sharing agreement with the state to include something of value for the tribe, and the feds have to sign off on any compact struck between Florida and the Seminoles.

House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, is insisting that his chamber won’t authorize any legislation unless Scott finalizes a deal with the Seminoles.

Jim Shore, the Seminoles’ general counsel, wrote in an op-ed published in the Sun Sentinel newspaper earlier this month that the state should reject destination resort casinos included in a Senate gambling proposal and instead stick to its agreement with the tribe.

“A billion dollars in revenue sharing, and growing. Tens of thousands of jobs. Billions in economic impact. It adds up to a great deal for Florida, one in which we’re pleased to be a partner, and one that deserves to go on well into the future,” Shore wrote.

But the House Democrats “wouldn’t vote to ratify the compact if it continued the exclusivity for the Seminoles and did not take into account the South Florida pari-mutuels,” Waldman said.

The caucus wants more games for Broward and Miami-Dade county “racinos” — pari-mutuels that also have slot machines and poker rooms — which are in competition with the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Hollywood. And they also want slots and card games in Palm Beach County, Waldman said. The House’s gambling proposal opens the door for slots at Palm Beach Kennel Club.

“We are in opposition to just a renewal of the existing compact. We’re looking for parity in games for the existing pari-mutuels,” Waldman said. “Essentially, we’re not in favor of just a renewal of the compact and the exclusivity that would be given to the Seminoles.”

Scott’s playing the Seminoles card close to his vest. Privately, legislative leaders in both parties complain that they have no clue what kind of a deal Scott is trying to work out with the tribe.

Waldman said he’s had no conversations with the governor’s staff other than a brief mention to Lt. Gov. Carlos Lopez-Cantera about the Democrats’ position.

“It’s a little surprising to me. If they’ve paid attention to history, they know Democrats have to be involved in this in order to get the deal done,” Waldman said.