With time running out, Florida legislators are still pushing ahead with a major gambling bill that would allow slot machines across much of the state.
For the first time in six years, a gambling bill has gotten traction in the Republican-controlled House, which has rejected past attempts to bring new casinos to South Florida.
The legislation would approve a proposed deal with the Seminole Tribe of Florida that would allow the tribe to add craps and roulette at their existing casinos. It would also enable them to hold onto blackjack tables that are the subject of a lawsuit between the tribe and the state.
But a House panel Monday also signed off on changes that would allow county voters later this year to approve slot machines at existing dog or horse tracks. The only restriction is that the track must be more than 100 miles from the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in Tampa.
It means slot machines could be added to tracks in North Florida as well as in Palm Beach, Brevard and Lee counties because voters in those counties have already held referendums on slots.
But the provision also means that slot machines could be available for tracks in Daytona Beach, Jacksonville and Pensacola. The measure (HB 7109) that heads to the House floor would also pave the way for another casino in Miami-Dade County and would allow existing casinos in South Florida to obtain blackjack tables. Lastly, it would clear up the murky legal status of fantasy sports in Florida by allowing it and regulating the operations of large online fantasy companies.
House Republicans backing the legislation maintained that the bill was a compromise designed to get the tribe to work together with existing track owners as well as trying to bridge a gap between the House and Senate. The Senate is moving a similar bill that also allows slot machines at tracks across the state. The session is scheduled to end March 11.
“There is a very high cost to inaction,” said Rep. Matt Gaetz, a Fort Walton Beach Republican. “On an issue this important, we ought to be able to get something done.”
Gov. Rick Scott and the Tribe late last year worked out a $3 billion deal that allowed the tribe to add roulette and craps, but it did allow slot machines across the state. Changing the terms of the deal would require new approval from tribal leaders and could likely change how much money the state would receive.
But if the Legislature fails to pass a deal, then the future of gambling could be decided by the courts. The Seminoles and the state of Florida have both filed lawsuits in federal court because the previous deal allowing blackjack tables expired last year. The Florida Supreme Court also has agreed to consider a lawsuit that argues slot machines should be allowed at an existing track 25 miles west of Tallahassee.
One key question is whether or not there are enough votes in the House or Senate for any deal. The House Finance and Tax Committee approved the bill by a 12-5 vote, but some of the no votes included GOP legislators staunchly opposed to expanding gambling.
Keystone Heights Republican Rep. Charles Van Zant, called gambling “predatory” and he said that the Legislature should leave any decision to expand slot machines to a statewide vote instead of county by county referendums.
“We need to let everyone have a clear vote,” Van Zant said. “This is something that would have a profound effect over the state.”
In a nod to anti-gambling legislators, the House is moving a separate constitutional amendment that would prevent the Legislature from expanding gambling in the future. If passed, it would go to voters this fall. But it’s unclear whether the Senate would go along with the proposal.