Florida Lawmakers roll the dice again on a gambling plan

ALLAHASSEE — Attempts to reach a deal on sweeping gambling proposals have been perennially fruitless endeavors in the Florida Legislature.

The issue of gambling was supposed to be off the table this legislative session, but a constitutional amendment on the November ballot has sparked a flurry of talks between House and Senate leaders on what could be the Legislature’s final opportunity to craft its own gambling footprint for the state.

But the odds remain low of developing a proposal that satisfies all the players: the Seminole Tribe of Florida; horse and dog tracks that have slots and others that want the lucrative machines; the rest of the pari-mutuel industry; federal gambling regulators; and traditionally gambling-leery state House members.

“I think skeptical is a good word for it. But it’s still important that we do what we can to ensure that we don’t find ourselves in November with no authority and no revenue share,” said Sen. Bill Galvano, a Bradenton Republican who has been a major sponsor on gambling-related legislation for years.

Galvano, slated to take over as Senate president after the November elections, spoke after a House panel approved a proposal that would give Seminole casinos the ability to continue blackjack gaming for two more decades.

The House plan (PCB TGC 18-01) also includes banning the state’s card room operators from offering popular and lucrative “designated player” games. And the bill has a sweetener for House Speaker Richard Corcoran by steering billions of dollars from a revenue-sharing agreement with the tribe to education programs he favors.

“That bill won’t work in the Senate,’’ Galvano said.

He’s among the lawmakers who feel increased pressure to pass legislation before the session ends March 9, after the Voter Control of Gambling Amendment made it onto the November ballot

If approved, the proposed constitutional amendment, largely bankrolled by Walt Disney Co. and the Seminole Tribe, would require voter approval for any proposed form of casino gambling, an issue now largely controlled by the Legislature.

In contrast, a key Senate committee recently advanced a plan (SB 840) that would make clear that designated player games and fantasy sports contests are legal in Florida, something the Seminoles argue could jeopardize a 20-year agreement between the state and the tribe.

The Senate proposal would allow dog and horse tracks to do away with racing but keep operating more lucrative activities such as slots and card rooms, a plan known as “decoupling.”

The House measure would ban decoupling and effectively re-authorize the 2010 agreement between the state and the Seminoles that gave the tribe exclusive rights to operate “banked” card games, such as blackjack, at most of its casinos, in exchange for about $250 million a year.

The portion of the agreement dealing with banked cards expired in 2015 and was the subject of a federal lawsuit that resulted in a settlement between Gov. Rick Scott and the Seminole Tribe.