COVER STORY: Florida Gaming Summit

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By Scott Long

  As spring faded into summer, a sliver of hope emerged from the halls of Tallahassee. We were teased with the prospect that 2009 just might be the year Florida took that giant leap into gaming. That 2009 just might be the year “real” poker came to the Sunshine State. That 2009 just might be the year, dare we say, we all got along.

But as summer faded into fall, that sliver of hope was nowhere near the halls of the Seminole Hard Rock Hollywood, home to the annual Florida Gaming Summit. We begrudgingly accepted 2009 would not be the year Florida took that giant leap into gaming. That 2009 would not be the year “real” poker came to the Sunshine State. That 2009 would not be the year we all got along.

No, 2009 will be the year when nothing at all changes — except that we’re all a lot more angry.

Last year was my first Florida Gaming Summit, a one-day series of panels featuring gaming proprietors, experts and analysts trading views on where Florida stood on gaming, and where Florida might be going. I found it informative and interesting. Couple that with the legislative advancements and Seminole Compact stalemate of 2009, and I had expected this year’s summit to be even more informative. Even more interesting.
Instead, it was a snoozer.

Perhaps it was because the heavy hitters took their shots at each other four hours apart.

Perhaps it was because the big news of the day didn’t come out until the day after.

Perhaps it was because we all may have just hoped for something that just really wasn’t possible.

James Allen, CEO of Gaming Operations for the Seminole Tribe, got things started as he did last year when he spoke about how much service mattered in the gaming industry. But this time, a larger elephant lurked in the room. Just less than two months since the tribe agreed to a revised compact with Gov. Charlie Crist that has been widely scorned across the state, Allen made his case for why the deal is fair. That it provides $150 million a year for educating the state’s children. That it offers more for the tribe’s competitors, and less for the tribe itself, than the disputed 2007 compact the tribe is still honoring.

But Allen was en route to Budapest, where Seminole Gaming is building another casino, when Virginia McDowell, president of Isle of Capri Casinos, took to the dais for a luncheon address that laid out the parimutuel industry’s position. She spoke of needing a reduced tax burden and the same games to level the playing field. And she spoke of how much more money Florida stands to see if it opens the entire state to full gaming.

Together on the same panel, this duo’s back-and-forth would alone have been worth the price of admission. But separated, the debate had the feel of following two presidential candidates speaking on opposite sides of the country, joined together only by sound bytes on CNN.

But the folks who were assembled on a panel to discuss the compact also barely advanced the issue. Bloated by long-winded opening remarks and one unnecessary panelist, attendees were denied a chance to question George Skibine, acting chairman of the National Indian Gaming Commission. If they had, perhaps we would have learned earlier that morning Skibine had met with Florida House Speaker Larry Cretul. And perhaps we would have learned before the news trickled out the next morning that Cretul had asked Skibine to intervene in the stalemate between the Legislature and the tribe.

And it’s that bit of news that perhaps best answers why many of us left this year’s summit wanting much more. It’s because that just wasn’t possible. Much like a good script from The Sopranos, the loose ends on this issue can’t be sewn up into a happy, tidy little package. Certainly not in one day.

“Level-playing field” was the catch phrase this year, as it was last year. This year, of course, the stakes are higher. But it doesn’t change the fact the very concept is unattainable. And here’s why:

The federal Indian Gaming Regulatory Act says states can’t tax Indian tribes for gaming unless it extends something of value, usually “exclusivity,” to the tribe. In plain English, the state has to create a monopoly of sorts with a tribe to benefit financially from the tribe’s gaming. And, well, competitors like parimutuel facilities aren’t too keen on battling a monopoly. And who can blame them?

“So why not just let everyone have everything?” you may ask. “Slots. Blackjack. No-limit poker. Let tracks have it all just like the tribe.”

That was the crux of McDowell’s speech. Don’t get fixated on losing the $150 million a year, she said. If all competitors could offer the same games, the state would reap more than that. No doubt she’s right, and recent developments are showing it just might be possible.

But it won’t “level the playing field.”

Picture a street corner with a mom-and-pop coffee shop on one side and a Starbucks on the other. Now imagine the Starbucks, with its big brand name and huge marketing budget, doesn’t have to pay taxes, while the mom-and-pop shop has to dole out 35 percent. That’s what the state would see if it scorns a deal with the tribe and opens gaming elsewhere in the state, because that same law says the tribe can deal any game legal anywhere in the state.

Not so much of a level playing field, is it?

But it’s good enough, says Joseph Coffey, one of the owners of Ocala Poker. He implored the Legislature to let him compete with “one arm tied behind his back.” The addition of slots or table games or no-limit poker would boost profits, even at an uneven tax rate.
So for all the talk of a level playing field, it’s just not possible. But playing on a bigger field is, and that’s what we’re looking at now.

The Legislature and the parimutuels, and the tribe and the governor’s office, are locked in a game of chicken, but one where neither car is moving. Instead, the drivers are poking their heads out of the window, shaking a fist and screaming, “I’m right! You’re wrong!”
In asking Skibine to get involved, Cretul has put his car in drive, pressed on the gas pedal and began hurtling toward the other car. What Skibine decides, if he decides anything at all, will determine which car swerves first.

Say he rules the Seminoles must shut down their blackjack tables. If so, then the tribe likely will be forced to offer the state more money or tighten the “out clauses” in its proposed compact.

But say he rules the Seminoles are within their rights to deal table games. If so, then the Legislature will have rolled the dice and lost. Lawmakers will be forced to accept a compact they do not want, or seriously consider expanding gambling throughout the state with no money from the tribe. It’s that latter option that got us into this mess in the first place. The conservative Florida House has been dragged into the gambling debate kicking and screaming. Had it been on board with the Florida Senate, we’d likely have a very different debate right now. Ironically, it is members of the House that are now waking up to the true crux of this issue and they’re starting to indicate the next legislative session just might be a good one for the state’s gamblers. But we’ve been teased enough, haven’t we?

The real losers in this stalemate are the state’s poker players. Everyone involved agrees there should be no limits on buy-ins or bets. That rooms should be open at least 18 hours a day. Yet, all of these other issues are keeping that from happening. Again, if you’re open to being teased again, look for some movement on poker by July.

Poker players, no doubt, are worried much less about a level playing field. We just want to get off the artificial turf.