Florida’s bill to freeze casino expansion passes through House committee

By Nicole Abbott
A key House committee voted 11 to 7 to pass HB 7037, despite opposition from Democrats. This bill will lock Florida’s gambling footprint in place for 20 years — completely vetoing any chance of casino expansion. The passing of this bill through the house has divided the Legislature over how to resolve the lucrative gambling compact with the Seminole Tribe.

The bill would authorise Gov. Rick Scott to renew the existing agreement with the governing tribe of two Hard Rock Casinos near Hollywood and Tampa and four other casinos in Florida. However, instead of maintaining the current revenue sharing agreement, the House proposes to increases the minimum guarantee from approximately $250m a year to at least $325m, in exchange for the rights to exclusively operate blackjack in Miami-Dade and Broward counties and slot machines at its casinos outside of South Florida.

The House also suggested that the money should be invested into three specific education programs aimed at retaining and recruiting teachers, helping children in failing schools and developing standards of higher education.

Rep. Michael LaRosa, R-St. Cloud, chair of the Tourism and Gaming Control Subcommittee that has sponsored the bill, says: “The bill provides much needed certainty and predictability for years to come.”

He further argues the House’s proposal closes loopholes that have allowed player-banked card games to be held in casinos’ poker rooms, reduces dormant parimutuel permits and revokes old provisions that could be used for unintended gaming expansion in the future.

The House bill has the rare support of the anti-gaming No Casinos advocacy group, the Florida Thoroughbred Breeders Association and the Florida Greyhound Association. It was opposed by Democrats who want to give horse and dog tracks that must compete with the tribe more gaming options.

On the other hand, the related Senate bill – SB 8 – aims to dramatically expand gaming in Florida by giving Miami-Dade and Broward counties each an additional slot casino, allowing the Seminole Tribe to operate seven full-scale casinos, and giving horse and dog tracks in at least eight counties new slot gaming site.

The tribe has indicated that neither propositions would justify its paying the state more in revenue sharing.

Marcellus Osceola, Chairman of the Tribal Council, notes in a letter to Scott, Senate President Joe Negron and House Speaker Richard Corcoran that both chambers ask the tribe to pay the state more money while shrinking its monopoly over some games.

Osceola writes: “Unfortunately, both the Senate and House bills would require dramatic increases in the Tribe’s payments without providing increases in the Tribe’s exclusivity sufficient to justify those higher payments,”

LaRosa stated that although Osceola’s letter stalled progress, discussions will continue.

Sen. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, previously told the Herald and the Times that the Senate has held meetings with the tribe’s representatives, and expects further changes to the Senate bill, which is now scheduled for a vote. However, neither he nor Rep. Jose Felix Diaz, R-Miami, chairman of the House Commerce Committee, expects a compromise to be reached immediately.

Despite opposition to the House bill by parimutuel groups, no effort was made to postpone the bills passing. Rep. Joe Abruzzo, D-West Palm Beach, said that is because the industry “just wants anything to move past our committee processes so we can get to conferencing and everything can get negotiated and changed.”

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