Florida compact still unresolved, lawsuits filed

Jan 19, 2016 3:09 AM

Florida’s strategy for gaming expansion across the Sunshine State is nothing less than a total mess, a tug of war with an array of deep-pocketed special interests working against each other.

And the future of the gaming business there may not be resolved any earlier than late this summer, which may mean another wasted legislative session so far as useful activity is concerned.

Las Vegas-based interests are paying attention because, well...  Florida is Florida, a natural vacation land if there ever was one.

A U.S. district court trial is scheduled to begin in Tallahassee in July. And then, of course, there would be the likely appeal by the losing side. A judge has consolidated suits that the state and Seminoles filed against each other.

Such schedules are always subject to change but as the myriad interests with strong feelings about Florida gaming opportunities keep yelping at each other, it is clear the $3 billion compact extension negotiated last month will probably not get the necessary approval of lawmakers during their current 60-day session.

Why?

A number of people with influence enough to put the legislative process to sleep don’t like it, a fact suggesting there is little room for compromise.

They have read the compact carefully and failed to find it offers much to any group other than the Seminoles. These groups include track owners and companies such as Malaysian-based Genting that feel South Florida is the perfect place for a giant casino resort or two.

The compact extension promises at least $3 billion to the state from Seminole casinos over the next seven years if the tribal casinos – including two Hard Rock resorts – are granted the exclusive right to deal an expanded menu of games, including craps and blackjack.

Republicans control both houses of the Florida Legislature and the early reading of their leadership’s lack of interest in the compact revisions suggests it has little chance of getting approval.

It would be nice to see state lawmakers do something useful this session, spread development opportunities around a little, but with the trial scheduled for July it is easy to argue legislators should spend their time on other issues.

So the playing field continues to be tilted in favor of the Seminoles who have spent millions on lobbyists and campaign donations, a fact that has not been overlooked by lobbyists for other gambling interests with appetites of their own for slices of the gaming pie.

These interests include the pari-mutuel tracks that would jump at the chance to install the electronic gaming devices that are now off-limits to them.

Boyd Gaming and Penn National are just two of the gaming companies that made investments in existing gaming facilities during recent years. They have been waiting for the legislation that would enable them to make further Florida plans. Isle of Capri Casinos did turn one of the small East Coast tracks into a racino.

Whatever the outcome of a trial and continuing negotiations, the Seminoles feel time is on their side.

It probably is.

The state filed suit against the tribe after the old compact provision allowing blackjack to expire last summer and the Seminoles refused to take down the tables. The tribe’s public rationale for its reluctance to discontinue blackjack was their claim the state had breached the exclusivity agreement by allowing electronic versions of blackjack at one of the South Florida tracks with slots.

The Seminole filed their own suit against the state claiming Florida failed to negotiate in good faith for a compact extension.

News reports of the state’s position appeared to suggest Florida was stamping its foot, so to speak, saying what has good faith got to do with anything?

The state is not required to renegotiate deals when they expire, Florida attorneys argued, apparently with straight faces.

“That contention is clearly wrong,” U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle wrote in response to Attorney General Pam Bondi’s request that the Seminole case be dismissed.

Florida has more gambling than many nonresidents imagine. It has been close to 40 years since Steve Wynn first put some money behind a drive to legalize casinos there.

The argument of anti-expansion forces then was gambling would spoil Florida’s reputation as a family-friendly resort environment.

Talk about fiction that has outlived its time! It sounds like an argument straight out of the Disney spin machine.

What Disney, the Seminoles and other elements of the tourism, business do not want is competition for the spending by tourists who already have commercial gaming of some kind close to where they live.

Phil Hevener has been writing about the Nevada gaming business for more than 30 years. Email: [email protected].