By Ricki Chavez-Munoz
“No, I don’t like that, either”, was legendary Groucho Marx, playing the funniest scene from A Night at the Opera, as Otis B. Driftwood, negotiating the ‘sanity clause’ with Fiorello (Chico Marx): “That just says, uh, it says, uh, if any of the parties participating in this contract are shown not to be in their right mind, the entire agreement is automatically nullified.”
Well, that seems to be the position of legislators in the State of Florida, as the latest horse trading efforts to address legislation came to nothing when the current session closed on Friday 9 March. Lamely, a joint statement was released by Senate and House leaders: “Despite the good faith efforts of both the House and Senate, a gaming bill will not pass the Legislature this session.” This is the part where sanity in the Florida legislature seems to prevail.
Throughout the week, positions had vied between House and Senate, as each has a different view as to what Florida state gambling legislation should entail. Needless to say, both Senators and Representatives had in tow a well drilled and dollar-fuelled army of lobbyists who call the tune of interested parties. This is the democratic way in this corner of the world.
Late on Friday, the Senate tried to force the House’s hand and upped the ante to allowing six slot machines per each licensed venue, three up from their set offer for operations in Brevard, Duval, Gadsden, Lee, Palm Beach and St. Lucie counties, which had previously passed local referendums to add slots at pari-mutuels but left out Hamilton and Washington counties. No reasons were known other than, perhaps, one humble bystander might see the decision as, “the party of the first part”, with that part torn out of the “sanity clause” just as Chico might have done in the opera-themed farce.
The Seminole Tribe’s loaded deck
As Florida legislation proposals by House and Senate resemble what in Peru we call rice and mango stew, the one consideration that underwrites Florida gaming legislation is the Compact between the State and the Seminole Tribe, who operate the Hard Rock casinos in the state.
The bottom line of a legislative compromise to update Florida’s gaming laws is one that would guarantee the state more money from the Seminole Tribe in exchange for adding craps and roulette to their casinos in exchange for about US$150 million, which would take the Seminole annual payments to the state to US$400 million.
Last year a federal court order allowed the Seminoles to stop about US$250 million in annual revenue-sharing payments to the state by the end of this month, if a dispute had not been settled over what is termed “designated player games” that are operated by some card rooms across the state.
The Seminole Tribe had sued the state over the emergence of card rooms and pari-mutuels, alleging that they unlawfully competed with its monopoly-protected slot machines or banked card games. Federal court Judge Mark Walker found in favour of the Seminoles and ruled that such “designated player” card games offered by more than a dozen pari-mutuel card rooms were illegal.
The Seminoles have been trying to get the Legislature to re-authorize their 2010 agreement with the state that gave the tribe “exclusive” rights to operate banked card games, such as blackjack, at most of its casinos in exchange for a minimum of US$250 million each year. Although the agreement expired in 2015 the tribe has continued to offer the games at all their casinos in the state.
Senator Bill Galvano, who is expected to become State Senate president next year, said at the beginning of the current legislative session: “My preference is to get what we can this year because the big constitutional amendment will curtail everything. If we know what the revenue from the tribe looks like, and we can create some equity with the pari-mutuel community, and we can do that in the next four weeks, we’ll do it.”
Earlier in the year, the House Tourism & Gaming Control Committee had voted 9-6 to approve an 83-page omnibus gambling bill, which included proposals to extend, “for 20 years both the Seminole Tribe’s current exclusive authorization to conduct banked games like blackjack state-wide and the tribe’s current exclusive authorization to conduct slot machine gaming outside of Miami-Dade and Broward Counties.”
In exchange for legislation to play the Seminole way, the omnibus gambling bill stated that, “the tribe will make revenue sharing payments totalling at least US$3 billion to the state during the first seven years of the 2018 compact.” This is what one would assume to be part of the sanity clause that Senator Galvano would refer to as “creating equity” for the State of Florida.
Looking for November’s 60% voters’ approval
Right now in Florida State, changes to gambling legislation will take a side step with a proposed “voter control of gambling” constitutional amendment for voters to opt for on November’s ballot. Approval by 60 percent of voters is needed for state-wide future expansions of gambling in Florida.
It has been said that gambling legislative matters in Florida suffer from inertia because of the fractured vote on gambling issues between anti-gambling-expansion lawmakers who are happy with the Seminole Tribe’s casinos in their district, and those with other pari-mutuel interests among their constituency.
The status quo is firmly on the side of the Seminoles and their compact deal with the State, and all that Florida legislators seem to be doing on the matter is play the Otis B. Driftwood’s game by tearing off the bits of legislation that do not fit the interests of lobbyists.
Sure, Florida State should get as much revenue from gambling as possible but this should be done by real play on a sanity bill that not only helps state development with new state-wide operations but also takes care of the Seminole cash cow. As it is, the sanity clause charade has just played out with bits of give and take on the issue. Well, “No, I don’t like that, either!”
© 2018. Greata Limited