2016 Legislative Food Fights: Gambling issues move from spotlight to supporting role

A big gambling overhaul bill won’t be on the menu this legislative session, but expect a swirl of other gaming-related topics to bubble up, including fantasy sports play and creating a state gambling commission to monitor users’ gain from super casino bonus and offers.

One not to expect is Las Vegas Sands’ effort to get a destination casino in South Florida. After trying unsuccessfully for years, the gambling giant finally pulled up stakes last year, letting go of lobbyist Nick Iarossi and others.

One of the hottest issues won’t be before lawmakers, however, it’ll be before the state’s highest court – though legislators surely will keep an eye on it.

The Florida Supreme Court already is gathering friend-of-the-court briefs for a challenge regarding slot machines. The question before the justices is: Are slot machines allowed outside of South Florida if local voters in a particular area approve of them?

The case directly involves a Gadsden County track and poker room run by the Poarch Band of Creek Indians. It was repped last year by Wallace Gene McGee and Adam J. Roberts.

Of course, virtually every pari-mutuel in the state has an interest in the outcome, from Gulfstream Park (represented by lobbyist Marc Dunbar) to Palm Beach Kennel Club (Brian Ballard) and Naples-Fort Myers Greyhound Track (Ron Book).

Fantasy sports play also is on the agenda, with bills filed by state Rep. Matt Gaetz and Senate President-designate Joe Negron that would make such games legal in Florida.

Here’s how it works: Players “draft teams that compete against each other based on the performance of real-world athletes,” as State Legislatures magazine recently explained.

“An estimated 56.8 million North Americans will participate this year, and each will spend around $465,” according to the magazine.

Is it gambling? Negron says no, that fantasy sports “is a contest based on skill,” and as such, “it’s no different than a bowling league.”

But Nevada has banned daily fantasy games as other states, including New York, are considering its legality. The U.S. Justice Department also is investigating.

The leading websites are lobbying up in advance of the Florida legislative session, with FanDuel now repped by Cory FoxJeremy Kudon and Scott Ward, and DraftKings hiring Griffin Finan, as well as Kudon and Ward.

Still other legislation (HB 415/SB 402) would allow people to buy lottery tickets at the gas pump. Both bills already have cleared several committees in both chambers.

The measures would require gas pumps to scan for a “valid driver license or use another age verification process” before dispensing a lottery ticket. In Florida, purchasers must be 18 or older.

The change would benefit equipment makers like GTECH Corp., for example. They were repped by Ballard last year; new representation hasn’t yet been listed on the state’s lobbying registration website.

Finally, Democratic state Sen. Maria Sachs filed legislation for this session to create a state gambling commission. The five-member commission would oversee a new Department of Gaming, taking over current duties from the departments of Business and Professional Regulation, Lottery and Agriculture & Consumer Services.

The measure, at least in concept, is favored by Senate President Andy Gardiner and House Speaker Steve Crisafulli, both Republicans.

Seminole Tribe of Florida lobbies up with hire of Floridian Partners

With its compact with the state of Florida expired and now in federal court to protect its multibillion dollar gambling interests, the Seminole Tribe of Florida has retained one of Tallahassee’s most prominent governmental affairs firms.

Floridian Partners, the lobbying shop headed up by Charlie Dudley, was inked  this week to represent the Tribe before the Rick Scott administration and the Florida Legislature.

What’s particularly interesting about this registration is, until recently, Floridian Partners had been signed with Las Vegas Sands, the gambling behemoth headed by billionaire Sheldon Adelson. But the casino resort operation last month abandoned its efforts to eventually build a casino in Florida and canceled its lobbying contracts with Capital City Consulting and Floridian Partners.

Within hours of that news, other gambling interests were calling both firms to retain their services.

As things now stand, the Tribe needs all the political help it can get. It already has the gaming experts at Jones Walker, the white shoes at PooleMcKinley, and Barry Richard, and Screven Watson.

“We are proud to join the team in representing the Seminole Tribe of Florida,” Dudley said.

The Tribe and the state have been at odds for months over renewing a deal granting the Seminoles exclusive rights to blackjack in Florida.

The blackjack provision is one part of an agreement known as the Seminole Compact. The card-game portion ended July 31 but has a 90-day grace period that included time for informal negotiation and structured mediation. The grace period ended Thursday but the games are still being run.

In return for exclusive rights to blackjack, the Tribe guaranteed $1 billion in payments to the state treasury over five years, starting in 2010-11. The tribe offers card games at seven casinos, including the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Tampa.

The Tribe’s lawyers argue that the state broke its promise of exclusivity by allowing electronic blackjack and player-banked poker elsewhere in the state, including in South Florida. A federal judge sitting in Tallahassee has yet to set a hearing to hear both sides.

Las Vegas Sands calls it quits in Florida

The Las Vegas Sands Corp. is giving up its efforts to get a destination casino resort in Florida, its Tallahassee lobbyist confirmed Tuesday afternoon.

Nick Iarossi, the Sands’ Florida lobbyist, said chairman Sheldon Adelson and other company heads made the decision over the weekend.

Iarossi said the company as of Monday has been canceling consulting contracts for public relations and lobbying – including his.

“I understand their perspective,” Iarossi told FloridaPolitics.com. “We’ve been pushing this for six years with no success.”

The move comes as Sands executives prepare to meet on Wednesday with legislative leadership in Georgia about a move to authorize a destination casino in Atlanta.

The Sands operates other casinos in Las Vegas; Bethlehem, Pa.; Macau and Singapore.

“No matter who wanted it, they weren’t going to get destination gaming in Florida; it doesn’t matter who you are,” said Andy Abboud, the Sands’ vice president for governmental relations.

Abboud didn’t immediately know how much his company has spent over the years in PR, lobbying and other consulting toward a casino in Florida.

State Sen. Rob Bradley, a Fleming Island Republican, said he wasn’t surprised at the news. He chairs the Senate’s Regulated Industries Committee, which has oversight of gambling in Florida.

“It was always a heavy lift to convince many of us that Las Vegas casinos were the right thing for Florida,” he said in a text.

In 2012, former state Sen. Ellyn Bogdanoff pushed a measure to permit three destination hotel-casinos in South Florida. That effort died.

Bogdanoff said the Legislature keeps failing to pass meaningful legislation overhauling laws and regulations governing gambling.

“I completely understand their decision,” she said of the Sands. “Nobody wants to address a comprehensive approach to gambling in this state. It’s taboo but it still needs to be fixed.”

Bogdanoff mentioned the Legislature’s hasty move to ban Internet gambling cafes in 2013 because of a multi-state investigation that netted dozens of arrests.

Similar to the cafe scandal, “something will happen that will force (lawmakers) to address it – and it won’t be pretty,” she said.

Earlier this year, state Rep. Dana Young of Tampa, the chamber’s Republican leader, sponsored sweeping legislation to permit two destination resort casinos in South Florida and allow dog tracks to stop live racing but continue to offer slots, among many other provisions.

It too died during the session. Young couldn’t be reached Tuesday.

Adelson has long had his eye on the Sunshine State, ponying up more than $5 million to fight against last year’s unsuccessful effort to pass a constitutional amendment legalizing medical marijuana.

Iarossi noted the uncertainty regarding a possible renewal of a deal between the state and the Seminole Tribe of Florida that gives the tribe exclusive rights to offer blackjack in Florida.

That agreement, known as the Seminole Compact and still in mediation, played into the Sands’ decision.

“As long as the tribe is influencing the gaming landscape, there will never be room for us,” Iarossi said.

Added Abboud: “With the indecision over the Compact, the budget battles, the (congressional) district lines, we knew this dog won’t hunt this session.”

Seminole Tribe spokesman Gary Bitner declined comment Tuesday evening.

— Peter Schorsch contributed to this report. 

…Today in gaming: A debate-style forum on expanded gaming & a court hearing on barrel racing

Keep an eye on two events today related to The Great Gaming Debate:

The first is a debate-style forum on the proposal to expand casino gambling in Florida, with Orlando attorney John Stemberger, the President of the Florida Family Policy Council as the anti-gambling voice on the five person panel and four people in favor of the proposal. The advocates for more gambling who will participate are Sen. Ellyn Bogdanoff, R-Fort Lauderdale, the sponsor of the casino bill; Dan Adkins, president of the Marti Gras Casino; Bob Wyre, general manager of Isle Casino and Racing; and Nick Iarossi, lobbyist for Las Vegas Sands. The main sponsor of the debate is the Greater Fort Lauderdale Chamber of Commerce, and it will be moderated by Antonio Fins, editor of the South Florida Sun Sentinel. Questions from the audience will be part of the forum.

The second is