Breaking Tampa Bay, Florida and national news and weather from Tampa Bay Online and The Tampa Tribune | TBO.com
Thursday, Apr 17, 2014
National Politics

State's hand may be forced on gambling regulations

The Tampa Tribune
Published:   |   Updated: March 14, 2013 at 01:32 AM
TAMPA -

World-class casinos. Strip-mall storefronts billed as "Internet cafés." Slot machines and poker rooms at local racetracks, where traditionalists still bet on the dogs and ponies. Barrel racing. Sixty state-sanctioned scratch-off games.

All these games of chance are either in place or proposed in a state that still has Statute 849.08 on the books:

"Whoever plays or engages in any game at cards, keno, roulette, faro or other game of chance, at any place, by any device whatever, for money or other thing of value, shall be guilty of a misdemeanor of the second degree …"

Florida's gaming history has been a hodgepodge of legislative exceptions to this statute: citizen initiatives, tribal deals, legal ambiguity and other narrow decisions, many of which have had unintended consequences.

Gaming in Florida is a $1.5 billion industry.

But there are new sheriffs in town. And the incoming leaders of Florida's Legislature are looking to get a firmer handle on gambling in Florida.

"I believe that we need to take a comprehensive look at gaming in our state, and arrive at some policy that is fair and equitable and realistic," said state Senate President-designate Don Gaetz, a Republican from Niceville.

"We have to get the parties around the table — and that includes the opponents of the expansion of gambling. I want to hear from the people of Florida."

Gaetz's counterpart in the House, incoming Speaker Will Weatherford, concurred.

"There needs to be clarity and direction as to where Florida is going with gaming," said Weatherford, a Republican from Wesley Chapel. "This does not mean there will be an expansion or a contraction of gaming in Florida, but one way or another, the issue has to be addressed."

Several developments are focusing attention on the issue.

Groups from Las Vegas and Asia have proposed mega-casinos known as "destination resorts" for South Florida.

Genting, a worldwide resort and casino operator based in Malaysia, has spent some $500 million to acquire 30 acres overlooking Biscayne Bay and is seeking to build a $3.8 billion Resorts World Miami.

It would include a hotel, convention center, restaurants, retail, residential and commercial facilities and, of course, a Las Vegas-style casino.

Genting traditionally would need legislative approval for such a project. A bill that would have allowed for three resorts in Miami-Dade and Broward counties stalled in spring's legislative session. But there is a path to gaming that skirts Tallahassee.

A political action committee, New Jobs and Revenue for Florida, has popped up with a stated mission of introducing a statewide constitutional amendment on gaming. Voters previously have passed initiatives expanding gambling, most recently allowing slot machines at some pari-mutuel sites in 2004 and endorsing the state lottery in 1986.

The well-funded New Jobs group, backed by Genting, has spent $600,000 on lawyers, pollsters and consultants with expertise in constitutional amendments, but it has been coy about its intentions.

"The committee was designed to take a hard look at what the options would be to expand entertainment options," said spokesman Brian Hughes, who formerly worked for Gov. Rick Scott. "That look continues and, ultimately, where it goes is still to be determined."

Meanwhile, the state's horse tracks, dog tracks and jai-alai frontons have made no secret of their wish to get in on expanded gambling, including Tampa Bay Downs and Derby Lane.

The 2004 constitutional amendment on slot machines limited the activity to existing pari-mutuel sites in Miami-Dade and Broward counties. Subsequent legislation allowed slots at another racetrack in South Florida, and local tracks wouldn't mind getting in on the action.

"We would love to have the opportunity to have new products of some sort," said Richard Winning, vice president at the Derby Lane dog track and poker room in St. Petersburg.

"We look forward to the Legislature opening up some discussion on gaming over the next couple of years. I hope we can come up with something. Our customers would like a new product, and we certainly would like to offer it to them, whether it's slots or anything else we can do out there."

The slot machine issue is linked to another key component of Florida gambling: an agreement called a compact with the Seminole Tribe regarding what can be offered at tribal gaming centers, including the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Tampa.

That deal was approved after years of delicate negotiations. In it, the state agreed to restrict slot machines to the South Florida counties while allowing the tribe to conduct the more elite Class III, or full Las Vegas-style games.

In return for the exclusivity, the Seminoles agreed to pay the state $1 billion over the first five years of the compact.

A spokesman for the tribe declined comment. But portions of the Seminole compact are scheduled to expire in 2015. The revenue-hungry state stands to lose the tribe's payment if it alters the agreement or expands gambling elsewhere in the state.

Meanwhile, efforts to regulate so-called Internet cafes — storefronts packed with computers on which gamers work sweepstakes-style screens that resemble traditional slot machines — also stalled in the Legislature.

That has led many local governments to ban the cafes, including Hillsborough, Polk, Pasco and Pinellas counties and the City of Tampa.

"Internet cafes are operating in the shadows," said Dan Gelber, a former House and Senate Democratic leader serving as a South Florida representative for the No Casinos political action committee.

"There's arguments that they are both legal and illegal. They're operating in a never-never land. The Legislature has to decide whether to regulate them or to eliminate them."

Gelber's group opposes all forms of gambling in Florida, including the push for the South Florida mega-casinos.

"I think the next chapter is going to be very important because the destination resorts have the potential to redefine the state's economy in a very negative way," Gelber said.

"Everywhere you've seen these destination resorts, they've tended to define the economy to the detriment of other features. I think it would be a horrible idea for Florida to ride that horse. It would change who we are, it would change how we present to the world and it would be a major change in our quality of life."

Gelber said legislative "inertia" has ruled the day on gambling issues. But Gaetz, the Senate leader, said the Legislature can't continue to ignore the issue, particularly with portions of the Seminole deal expiring.

"Whether I want to or not, whether Speaker Weatherford wants to or not, we will have to deal with renegotiating the Seminole compact on our watch," said Gaetz, a consistent opponent of expanded gaming.

"Even if Will Weatherford and I had no taste for the issue, we're being overtaken by events.

"What we don't have is a state policy that addresses gaming. We've allowed the expansion of gaming by fits and starts over the years, and the result is that there is always some inequity that is chafing away at someone."

He would like to see a summit on the issue.

"I want to hear from the people of Florida on gaming," Gaetz said.

"I want to hear from economists who don't have a dog in the fight. Once you take certain steps in policy related to gambling, it's hard to walk it back. My view is we need to be very careful, we need to be very thoughtful."


jstockfisch@tampatrib.com (813) 259-7834

Comments