Share story

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — After past deals have collapsed amid infighting among Florida’s gambling interests, the Republican-controlled Legislature is trying yet again to pass a comprehensive gambling bill.

There is a renewed effort in passing a bill this year because a constitutional amendment on casinos will be on the ballot in November. Additionally, there are questions as to whether an agreement brokered last year between Gov. Rick Scott and the Seminole Tribe of Florida will continue to guarantee the state a certain amount of money.

“Can something get done? I don’t know,” said Sen. Bill Galvano, a Bradenton Republican involved in gambling negotiations with House leaders. “But I think it’s important to at least see what is a possibility.”

Gambling is supposed to be “illegal” in Florida, but really isn’t. There’s plenty of it around the state, often tucked away from theme parks and beaches in locations known mostly to locals and retirees who flock to Florida each winter.

While the state lacks high-end casinos like Las Vegas, the Seminole Tribe operates several casinos, including Hard Rock hotels and casinos in Tampa and Hollywood. Dog and horse tracks are scattered statewide, but only those in south Florida have been permitted to install slot machines, while only the tribe is authorized to offer blackjack.

In the last few years the Legislature has considered bills that would have opened up the state to more top-end casinos only to see the efforts fail due to competing interests, including those in the gambling industry as well as those in the state’s tourism industry who have been traditionally opposed to any expansion of gambling.

The legislative efforts could end this year, however, if voters approve an amendment that would make it clear that only voters can approve new casinos in the future. Sixty percent of voters would have to say yes in order for the measure to become law.

“If we want to have a say in what gaming is going to look like for the next several decades, now is the time to act,” said Rep. Jose Oliva, a Miami Lakes Republican in line to become the next House speaker.

Another wrinkle this year is that Scott and tribal officials late last year negotiated a settlement to end a lawsuit over whether the tribe could continue to offer blackjack at its casinos. But some legislators have questioned whether the settlement is binding without legislative approval and whether the tribe will continue to make payments under the deal.

A House panel on Tuesday made its opening offer in this year’s negotiations by approving a bill that calls for a 20-year deal between the state and the Seminoles. The agreement calls for the tribe to pay the state $3 billion over the next seven years and it would allow tribal casinos to keep blackjack tables that were first approved by the state back in 2010.

But the legislation also freezes other gambling operations in place and would not allow slot machines outside of two South Florida counties. Rep. Mike La Rosa, a St. Cloud Republican and sponsor of the bill, acknowledged the House bill would “box up all gaming and gambling for 20 years.”

Some legislators contended this approach is unfair because voters in eight counties outside of South Florida have voted in favor of adding slot machines to existing dog and horse tracks. The state Supreme Court ruled last year that the referendums did not give counties legal authority to approve slots.

Some lawmakers also want to allow existing tracks to drop living racing events yet still keep other types of gambling such as poker rooms. Rep. Jared Moskowitz, a Coral Springs Democrat, said it was a “communist solution” to force track owners to keep offering live racing in order to keep their gambling permits.