Struggles at the sausage factories

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With a big sigh of relief, poker players across Florida saw their Legislature finally get it right. Led by Sen. Dennis Jones and Rep. Bill Galvano, the 2010 Legislature put to bed a host of issues that have been pending for years. Effective July 1, full no-limit action is on its way to Florida!

Picking up where it left off in 2009, political realists shook off objections from the conservative right and passed legislation to effectuate the provisions of the 2009 omnibus gaming bill that was held hostage pending the outcome of dispute with the Seminole Tribe of Florida over its gaming operation. The legislation created once and for all a gaming compact with the Seminoles that allow them to operate their Class III casino operations with blackjack.

For the parimutuel cardrooms, operating hours will be allowed to increase to 18 hours on weekdays and 24 hours on weekends and holidays. Tournament caps and betting limits are a thing of the past. Parimutuel casinos will see a nice tax break on their slot machine revenue from 50 percent to 35 percent, a reduction in their annual fee and an authorization for “wide area progressives” (Think multimillion dollar slot-machine jackpots). It’s expected that as a result of the change a few new poker rooms will pop up around the state, one outside of Tallahassee, two in the Ocala area, one in Volusia County and another in Palm Beach County.

While many heralded the legislation as a tremendous victory, others (particularly the parimutuels in the Tampa Bay area) are signaling it may be the beginning of the end for their facilities. Citing the competitive imbalance between the Seminole Hard Rock and their facilities, Tampa Bay Downs and Derby Lane expressed major reservations about the legislation when it passed. Time will tell, but as the new era embarks one thing is for sure, poker players in Florida were big winners.

Elsewhere in The South, poker players and casino-goers weren’t so lucky. South Carolina considered a number of bills aimed at clarifying social gambling. The idea behind the measures was to eliminate the selective prosecution that has led to a couple of very high-profile cases working their way up to the South Carolina Supreme Court. These cases involved home games where, on anonymous tips, law enforcement raided private games and arrested those involved. Smoke-and-mirrors lobbying and procedural delays by the conservative right ultimately prevented the bills from being taken up by the South Carolina House of Representatives. In the meantime, the court cases continue to work their way through South Carolina courts as the various poker player groups and well-known pros such as Mike Sexton weigh-in to support those prosecuted in the hopes of clarifying a very old and very convoluted law.

Like South Carolina, Alabama saw itself embroiled in litigation and legislation trying to sort through the state’s gaming future. The Alabama Legislature has been at the epicenter recently in trying to answer one very basic question: What is bingo? Alabama is a state with a very conservative past and archaic constitution that prohibits pretty much all games of chance. However, over the years numerous amendments to the Alabama Constitution have allowed “charity bingo” in certain rural counties. These amendments, which went into effect before the computer age, have (with the help of local elected officials and a couple of judges) morphed into authorizations for slot-machine casinos. Developers have invested millions in developing gaming and entertainment venues anchored by Class II slot machines, which are based on the game of bingo.

Much like other southern states, the push and pull between conservatives and moderates made its way to the capital with the governor and the attorney general squaring off in the state supreme court over the slot-machine gambling. Most operations were shut down by the governor’s gambling task force and the 2010 Alabama Legislature moved in to clarify the dispute. In what has been criticized by Gov. Robert Riley as one of the most corrupt pieces of legislation he has ever seen, the Alabama Legislature came within a handful of votes of placing before the voters an amendment to the Alabama Constitution that would’ve ushered in the Yellowhammer State as the newest member of the fraternity of gaming states in our country.

In the end, it was not to be. Federal corruption investigators descended upon Alabama and the legislative votes began to evaporate. The legislative session ended without a measure being taken up by the full House or Senate. Most of the bingo slot machines remain dark, and the uncertainty will continue in Alabama for at least another year, when a new governor will be at the helm. In the meantime, casino developers are looking elsewhere in the hopes of moving their shuttered operations to more friendly jurisdictions.

As the phrase goes, legislation is a lot like making sausage … you don’t want to watch the process, but the result is often a treat for those who like it. For poker players in The South, the sausage factories in Alabama and South Carolina continue to work on their recipes, but in Florida come July 1, belly up to the buffet as the all-you-can-eat special is coming for poker players in the Sunshine State.

— Marc W. Dunbar is a shareholder with Tallahassee law firm Pennington, Moore, Wilkinson, Bell & Dunbar, P.A.  He represents several gaming clients before the Florida Legislature and teaches gambling and parimutuel law at the Florida State University College of Law.