Hold your horses on new poker limits in Florida

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We’ve cleared yet another hurdle, but many laps remain in the marathon steeplechase toward real poker laws in Florida.

 The Aug. 31 signing of a new gaming compact between Gov. Charlie Crist and the Seminole Tribe of Florida was a big, but not unexpected, step. Without a compact by the Legislature-imposed deadline, the state and the tribe would have committed to a high-stakes game of chicken. Smartly, both sides chose the high road.

But now the document returns to the Legislature, where its passage is anything but certain.

Voracious last-minute deal-making in May lead to the passage of Senate Bill 788 which, among other things, removes bet and buy-in limits on poker in the state and expands the hours that poker rooms can stay open. It’s exactly what poker players have been clamoring for in this state, but it also was tied to a new compact between the state and the Seminoles.

With a compact signed, all the Legislature has to do is sign off on it. But it’s not that easy. The Legislature laid out its plan for the compact in SB 788, but the document Crist and the tribe signed deviated from that blueprint. Among other things, the compact lets the tribe keep blackjack at Seminole Casino Immokalee and it effectively shuts out any expansion of lucrative gaming to parimutuels outside of Broward and Miami-Dade counties.

Legislative leaders were quick to identify “red flags” in the compact that might make passage difficult, and parimutuel owners followed soon after with complaints about the “one-sided” deal. No doubt by the time you’re reading this, the chorus of concern has grown louder.

We’d like to think all of this is coming to a head in early October, when the Legislature convenes to vote on the compact. And in one sense, it does. Legislative approval is the stiffest challenge remaining. If enough legislators are convinced the compact and SB 788 is a fair deal, or at least fair enough to avoid the uncertainty of rejection, it’ll move on the final stage: federal government approval.

But we’re likely to see plenty of wheelin’ and dealin’ leading up to that October special session, and much of it will focus on something called “exclusivity.”

States can’t tax Indian tribes for gaming, but can receive payments in exchange for something of value. Something like “exclusivity,” or the tribe’s right to be the only one dealing certain games. The federal government will take a hard look at how exclusive the deal is for the Seminoles, since Florida will reap an estimated $6.8 billion over the course of the 20-year deal.

And that’s the big roadblock in future negotiations. While the tribe made concessions to the seven Broward and Miami-Dade parimutuels, who may add table games to their slot machines in the future with approval, it was steadfastly against the rest of the state having the same option. Or even the option to add slot machines in the future. Parimutuel owners, expectedly, balked. No one wants to be told they can’t add new products for the next 20 years. And the bone thrown their way — the option to add a maximum 300 historical racing or electronic bingo machines — is not enough, they say.

So that brings us back to “exclusivity.” If negotiators find a way to give the parimutuels a little more, do they do so at the risk that the federal government will reject the deal? If so, we’re back to that game of chicken that no one wanted to play in the first place.
Two big hurdles are down.

But two very tall ones remain.

 — Email Scott Long at scott@anteupmagazine.com

How the compact and SB 788 differ

The gaming compact Gov. Charlie Crist and the Seminole Tribe signed on Aug. 31 differs from the parameters included in Senate Bill 788, which the Legislature approved in May. The key differences:

EXCLUSIVITY: The tribe has exclusive rights to offer table games and Class III slot machines throughout the state, with the following exceptions:

• Other tribes, with a valid compact, can offer the same games. (The Miccosukee tribe is the only qualifying tribe in Florida).
• Class III slot machines are allowed at eight Broward and Miami-Dade parimutuels (Isle Casino, Dania Jai-Alai, Gulfstream Park, Mardi Gras Gaming, Calder Race Course, Miami Jai-Alai, Flagler Dog Track and Hialeah Park), though those eight can not move their licenses to new locations. They are also eligible to offer table games, if approved. Gaming can expand to other locations in the two counties, but would reduce the payments the tribe must make to the state.
• Parimutuels outside of those two counties, if approved, could operate amaximum of 300 historical racing or electronic bingo machines.

REACH: The tribe may offer table games and Class III slot machines at all seven of its casinos. The Legislature had only authorized it for the tribe’s Broward and Hillsborough casinos.

VIDEO TABLE GAMES: While the tribe is not permitted to offer craps or roulette, the compact doesn’t prohibit it from offering video versions of the games. Miami-Dade and Broward parimutuels previously had asked to be able to offer video versions of table games under their slot machine licenses. 


INTERNET GAMING:
If the federal or state government authorizes Internet gaming, the tribe would be allowed to reduce its payments to the state. Bills are pending in the U.S. House and U.S. Senate to regulate certain Internet gaming, and a Florida state agency has been charged to report on issues with Internet gaming by Dec. 1.


COMPLIANCE: The Florida Department of Revenue will act as the compliance agency for the Seminole Tribe, not the Department of Business and Professional Regulation, which is the compliance agency for parimutuel gaming.