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Gambling deal may come down to slots question

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Seeing it as the “lesser of various evils” to pass a gambling bill this year, the House may give in to the Senate’s position to legislatively approve new slot machines in counties that passed referendums allowing them, according to those familiar with the negotiations.

As of early Monday, the Conference Committee on Gaming was set to meet later in the day at 1:30 p.m., though an official notice had not yet gone out.

The House and Senate are far apart on their respective gambling bills this session, with the House holding the line on gambling expansion, and the Senate pushing for new games. Both sides also want to see some new agreement with the Seminole Tribe on continued exclusivity to offer blackjack in exchange for $3 billion over seven years.

What’s becoming clearer as the 2017 Legislative Session’s May 5th end looms is House leadership’s distress at recent court decisions, the practical effect of which is opening up more gambling opportunities without legislative say.

Sources had said conference chair and state Sen. Bill Galvano had gotten “spooked” by a Supreme Court decision last Thursday that cleared for the 2018 ballot a “Voter Control of Gambling” amendment, giving voters the power to OK or veto future casino gambling in the state.

Vice-chair and state Rep. Jose Felix Diaz confirmed that Galvano, who didn’t respond to a request for comment, wanted to make sure the amendment “wouldn’t affect the Senate’s offer.”

But one representative of gambling interests throughout the state, who asked not to be named, said the House “was very careful in not taking the referendum counties issue off the table.”

A second person said that “(a)ll things considered, that was way down on the list of things that gave them heartburn.”

More concerning was a 1st District Court of Appeal opinion earlier this month against the Department of Business and Professional Regulation, which regulated gambling, ordering the reinstatement of a South Florida casino’s application for a new “summer jai alai” permit.

Taken to one logical extension, the ruling could lead to “mini-casinos” in hotels, they say. Miami-Dade lawmakers in particular have been concerned about Miami Beach’s Fontainebleau Hotel pursuing slot machines in the last few years. At a minimum, such permits allow a pari-mutuel facility to open a cardroom and offer simulcast betting.

Another circuit court ruling last month against the department said entertainment devices that look and play like slot machines, called “pre-reveal” games, were “not an illegal slot machine or gambling device.” Judge John Cooper reasoned that was because players “press a ‘preview’ button before a play button can be activated.”

That ruling’s applicability was, at first, unclear: Because Cooper is a circuit judge, some state officials said his order only applied in north Florida’s 2nd Judicial Circuit of Franklin, Gadsden, Jefferson, Leon, Liberty and Wakulla counties.

Later, attorneys in the industry argued Cooper’s decision applied all over Florida, because it was against the department that regulates gambling statewide. That had House leaders “freaked out” that pre-reveal games would start appearing in bars, restaurants, and even in family fun centers.

Meantime, Galvano and others in the Senate fixated on the dissent in the gambling amendment case, and its implication on what’s known as the “Gretna case.”

Justices Ricky Polston and R. Fred Lewis said the amendment’s “ballot title and summary do not clearly inform the public that the proposed amendment may substantially affect slot machines approved by county-wide (referendums).”

With Lewis signing on to the dissent, “that made us think there was another vote in favor of Gretna that we didn’t think was there,” said yet another person in the gambling industry.

The court has not yet ruled in a case, pending since oral argument was given last June, on Gretna Racing. That’s the Gadsden County track seeking to add slot machines; pari-mutuel interests have said Gretna and other facilities in counties where voters approved slots should be allowed to offer them.

If the court rules in favor, that could result in the single biggest gambling expansion in the state.

“I think the House is fed up with it,” said the first industry consultant, referring to gambling-related court decisions. “The only way they can get a handle on (gambling expansion) is to get a bill done, and if that means throwing in the towel on slots in referendum counties, that’s the lesser of the various evils.”

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Before joining Florida Politics, journalist and attorney James Rosica was state government reporter for The Tampa Tribune. He attended journalism school in Washington, D.C., working at dailies and weekly papers in Philadelphia after graduation. Rosica joined the Tallahassee Democrat in 1997, later moving to the courts beat, where he reported on the 2000 presidential recount. In 2005, Rosica left journalism to attend law school in Philadelphia, afterwards working part time for a public-interest law firm. Returning to writing, he covered three legislative sessions in Tallahassee for The Associated Press, before joining the Tribune’s re-opened Tallahassee bureau in 2013. He can be reached at jim@floridapolitics.com.

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