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Weatherford: Gambling overhaul must include Seminole tribe

TALLAHASSEE — House Speaker Will Weatherford said a statewide gambling overhaul won’t move forward this year unless it provides for a ballot question on future expansion and requires a new revenue-sharing deal with the Seminole Tribe.

But he did “agree in principle” with a suggestion by Senate President-designate Andy Gardiner to fold the state Lottery into a future statewide gaming commission. The Lottery now is a separate department with its head appointed by the governor.

Weatherford, a Wesley Chapel Republican, met with reporters in the Capitol on Tuesday in one of a traditional series of pre-legislative session interviews.

“We don’t know how to draw a bill that does anything with regards to gaming that doesn’t affect the compact we have with the tribe,” he said. “And so for us to go down that road and start a big process and have a bunch of hearings on a bill that theoretically isn’t going anywhere … is a waste of everyone’s time.”

The Seminole Compact includes a provision allowing blackjack and other card games at locations including the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Tampa. The card game provision expires in mid-2015 unless it’s renewed.

The deal guarantees the state a minimum $1 billion from the tribe’s gambling income over five years. But under certain scenarios, if the tribe loses its exclusive rights to offer Las Vegas-style games through expanded gambling, it can stop paying.

Weatherford is clear about being an opponent of more gambling in the state. What he wouldn’t outright say is whether he thought the Senate – which has done most of the heavy lifting – was moving too fast, too soon.

The Senate’s Gaming committee, chaired by Naples Republican Garrett Richter, has held hearings across the state and is now drafting a proposed bill.

“I know the Senate’s talked about a bill,” Weatherford said. “I haven’t seen a bill. They’ve been talking about a bill for a month.

“We haven’t been talking about one,” he added. “We’ve been talking about principles. We’ve been talking about parameters. They have to be met before we’re willing to engage in a conversation” with the Senate.

But they haven’t been doing much talking recently. The House select committee on Gaming last met on Nov. 6, according to records. Since then, the Senate’s gaming panel has convened six times.

“This is an opportunity for us, like grownups, to have a mature conversation about what gaming should look like in Florida,” Weatherford said. “But I’m unwilling to have that conversation if we can’t have a compact that’s been negotiated and pass a constitutional amendment,” which has to be approved by 60 percent of voters.

In fact, both of those elements are being considered for the Senate’s bill.

Gov. Rick Scott’s office, which would lead renewal negotiations with the Seminoles, has said only that “we will take the time needed to negotiate the best arrangement for Florida.”

“I don’t know how … anyone can negotiate a gaming bill or deal with any legislation if the single biggest player is not at the table,” Weatherford said.

Seminole Tribe spokesman Gary Bitner declined to comment on any future compact talks.

He previously said the tribe “worked for two decades to secure a gaming compact with the state of Florida that provided a more stable future for the tribe … and allowed for significant sharing of gaming revenue with the state.”

The Seminole Tribe “wants to maintain that steady, stable course through 2015 and beyond,” Bitner said.

Weatherford also said he agreed with Gardiner’s idea of putting the Lottery under a new independent gaming control body.

Gardiner, an Orlando Republican, sits on the Senate’s Gaming committee and also opposes expanding gambling.

At least two states, Maryland and New York, have combined state lottery and gaming control organizations. Gambling in Florida now is largely regulated through the Department of Business and Professional Regulation.

Weatherford, about to preside over his second and last legislative session, also touched on several other issues during the half-hour session, including increased child protection measures, water quality concerns and his enduring opposition to Medicaid expansion.

He mentioned his desire to have both the House and Senate pass a joint rule on the first day of session defining lawmakers’ residency for election purposes. The annual legislative session starts March 4.

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