Politics

Weatherford: ‘Lights Dimming’ On Florida Gambling Bill

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(MIKE CLARKE/AFP/Getty Images)

(MIKE CLARKE/AFP/Getty Images)

Taste Of The Town

TALLAHASSEE (CBSMiami/NSF) — Odds are getting longer against stand-alone casinos in Florida in the near future as a stalemate between Gov. Rick Scott and House Speaker Will Weatherford appears to deepen.

“The lights are dimming,” Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, told The News Service of Florida on Tuesday.

Senate Gaming Committee Chairman Garrett Richter is scheduled to release a 300-plus page gambling proposal next week that will include at least two “destination resorts” that combine convention space, hotel rooms and slot machines. The proposal would also likely create a gambling commission that would regulate activities now overseen by the Department of Business and Professional Regulation, which is under Scott’s control.

Weatherford has said the House will not pass any gambling proposal unless Scott finalizes a deal with the Seminole Tribe of Florida — a current deal is slated to sunset next year — and voters sign off on any changes approved by the Legislature during the 60-day session that begins March 4. He also wants voters to change the constitution to require a statewide vote before gambling can be expanded in the future.

Scott’s staff told The News Service on Friday that he does not support a gaming commission and that his “immediate focus” was on renewing the compact with the Seminoles “to get the best deal for Floridians.” Scott did not set a timeline for finalizing a deal with the tribe.

“Our position’s pretty clear. I respect the governor. If he wants to take the full time to negotiate the compact, we just have to be cognizant and recognize that it precludes us from going forward with the bill,” Weatherford said Tuesday. “I totally don’t blame him if he wants to take more time to negotiate. We’re not trying to rush that. It’s just that in order to have a holistic conversation about this issue, the compact really has to be a part of it. And certainly a gaming commission would have to be a part of it. So if he’s not interested in those two, then that kind of is what it is.”

Asked about Weatherford’s comments on Tuesday, Scott’s spokeswoman Jackie Schutz said “the governor will take the time needed to get the best deal for Floridians.”

The current agreement with the tribe, struck by Gov. Charlie Crist and inked in 2010, gave the Seminoles the exclusive rights to operate banked card games like blackjack and baccarat for five years. In exchange, the Seminoles agreed to give the state a minimum $1 billion over five years. The tribe can halt the payments if slot machines are allowed outside of Miami-Dade or Broward counties or reduce the payments if gambling expands within those counties. The exclusivity agreement regarding the card games sunsets in mid-2015.

Scott and the tribe have a number of options on the table. Under one scenario, the tribe could agree to pay more to the state in exchange for the exclusive rights to other games such as roulette or craps.

But any changes in the state’s current gambling landscape would have an impact on the current payment structure, should Scott and the tribe choose to renew it as-is.

The Senate proposal will include a minimum of two casino resorts, one each in Broward and Miami-Dade. The proposal would also likely allow greyhound tracks to continue other gambling activities like poker and slots while eventually doing away with dog races.

“I identified this whole project as an uphill lift early on. I’ve still got my shoulder behind it trying to determine what has the best interest of the state of Florida in mind. There are some obvious challenges with trying to get all the interested parties’ support,” Richter, R-Naples, said Tuesday. “Nothing’s over ’til it’s over.”

The Legislature paid $400,000 for a gambling study and the Senate held committee meetings around the state in anticipation of an overhaul of the state’s patchwork quilt of gambling laws and consideration of the destination resorts, pushed by out-of-state casino conglomerates and opposed by the Florida Chamber of Commerce.

Richter said he is trying to convince Scott that the governor would still have control over gambling by being able to appoint members of a gaming “control board.”

“If I’m not able to do that, then I’m not able to do that,” Richter said, adding that he did not know what Weatherford meant by the “light’s dimming” on prospects for passage of a gambling bill. “I think we keep working on it until lights are out.”

“The News Service of Florida’s Dara Kam contributed to this report.”

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