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Are All Bets Off On Legislature's Passage Of Gambling Deal?

It's a sure bet that lawmakers won't sign off on a $3 billion agreement with the Seminole Tribe that Gov. Rick Scott handed over last month.

Whether the Legislature will pass any gambling deal — in what is certain to be one of the most heavily lobbied issues of the session that begins Jan. 12 — remains a huge question.

Scott's proposed deal with the Seminoles, called a "compact," may have made it even more difficult for lawmakers to pass a plan regarding an industry in which, as one former regulator said, operators often care more about what the other guy doesn't get than what they receive.

"It won't be anything less than a Super Bowl-type issue," said Mark Delegal, a prominent Tallahassee lobbyist who isn't representing entities involved in the gambling issue.

Under the compact signed by Scott and tribal leader James Billie last month, the Seminoles would be able to add craps and roulette to their casinos in exchange for a guarantee of $3 billion to the state over seven years.

The compact also would permit, but does not authorize, slot machines in Palm Beach County and at a new facility in Miami-Dade County, limited blackjack at pari-mutuels in Broward and Miami-Dade counties and possibly doing away with horse and dog racing altogether while allowing pari-mutuels to maintain cardroom or slot-machine operations, a concept known as "decoupling."

Those components make passage of a gambling deal — which legislative leaders characterize as a "heavy lift," a "three-dimensional game of chess" and a Rubik's cube — a Sisyphean task.

"I think that everyone can kind of agree that this is an area that complicates the votes for people," said House Regulatory Affairs Chairman Jose Felix Diaz, a Miami Republican who as the House's lead negotiator on the compact will shepherd a bill through his chamber. "There are people that really want greyhound decoupling, but they might also equally hate something else that's in it somewhere else and might butt up against the bill because they don't get everything that they want."

The elements allowed in the compact could generate unreasonable expectations for the pari-mutuel industry, making a deal harder to accomplish, according to Senate Majority Leader Bill Galvano, a Bradenton Republican who was instrumental in passing 2010 legislation that authorized an initial compact with the tribe.

"When the governor sent us a compact, that becomes the starting point for the pari-mutuel side of the equation. So what is allowed and not impacting exclusivity is now an expectation for the pari-mutuels. It's like a floor," he said.

Who gets what — and where — will be the focus of legislation that some predict will be the most contentious issue of the 2016 session.

The Seminoles have slots and blackjack at most of their casinos, but the tribe is in a legal battle with the state about the expiration of part or the 2010 compact that allowed blackjack and other types of "banked" card games. Meanwhile, pari-mutuels in Broward and Miami-Dade counties have slots, but want blackjack. Operators in several other parts of the state want slots, too, after local referendums on the issue. Hours of operation, tax rates and purses for horse races added into the mix generate an exponential degree of difficulty.

"That's going to be a challenge this session, bringing all of that together to be able to have the requisite number of votes in each chamber. Then add to that the anxiety of timing, because when these issues open up and close, the entities that are interested don't know when they'll have another opportunity," Galvano said.

While the proposal offered by Scott would permit slots in Palm Beach County, it would not allow the lucrative machines at pari-mutuels in five other counties — Brevard, Gadsden, Hamilton, Lee and Washington — where voters have also signed off on them.

That's problematic for many, including House Speaker Steve Crisafulli, who hails from Brevard County but who said he voted against slots.

Crisafulli called the slots issue one of "fairness and equity."

"Are you going to create a level playing field or are you not? Are you going to pick winners and losers? That's a decision we have to make," Crisafulli, R-Merritt Island, told reporters recently. "There's a reality to vote counts. There's a reality to understanding that there's an interest in these communities for some of these folks to have pari-mutuels with slot machines because they passed a referendum."

Passage of any gambling legislation requires bipartisan support in the GOP-controlled Legislature, because some Republicans typically oppose any bills dealing with the issue for ideological reasons.

Black lawmakers want slots for Gretna Racing, a tiny Northwest Florida horse track located in Gadsden County, one of the state's poorest locales and the only county where the majority of the population is black.

Senate Democrats, typically more friendly toward gambling legislation, "are looking very parochially at what's happening to the facility in my district, or how does it affect it," said Sen. Oscar Braynon, a Miami Gardens Democrat who serves on the Senate Regulated Industries Committee, which will give any gambling bill a preliminary vetting. "Right now, I don't know that the compact does enough to galvanize enough Democrats to get the votes."

Cobbling together a compromise that pleases everyone isn't an option, according to Diaz.

"I don't think there's a single person that, no matter how you craft this bill, is going to be 100 percent happy with it," he said. "I think the question they're going to have to ask themselves is, 'Can I live with the things I don't like and the things I like about this bill in totality?' "

Time also is working against lawmakers. Neither chamber has considered any gambling legislation during committee meetings leading up to the 2016 session, which ends in March.

"Is the clock running? Yes. Is it getting late in the game? Yes. Is it going to be a very challenging issue to pass out of the Legislature? Yes. That's just the reality of where we are," Crisafulli said. "Can it be done? Certainly."

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