A Closed-Door Meeting Might Open Discussion On Gambling Expansion

Written By JR Duren on March 25, 2021

Florida is (allegedly) nearing a gambling deal.

Gov. Ron DeSantis and Sen. Wilton Simpson met with 20 casino, track, and jai-alai facility owners this past week in Tallahassee to discuss gambling legislation. The gathering was a closed-door meeting, after which DeSantis told reporters that a gambling deal is “close.”

“We will probably know one way or the other within the next week or so whether we have a path to agreement,” DeSantis told the press.

What would a gambling deal look like?

In Florida, there are two competing interests in the gambling industry: the Seminole Tribe and pari-mutuels. The Seminole have exclusive rights to certain games, including blackjack. They run six casinos in the state, two of which are Hard Rock properties. It’s long been thought that any gaming expansion deal would have to go through the Seminole before it’s passed.

The pari-mutuels, on the other hand, are a network of more than 20 facilities that include card rooms, slots, jai alai complexes and, until recently, greyhound tracks.

Presumably, a gambling deal would have to:

  • Avoid a popular vote that would last two election cycles
  • Get the Seminole tribe’s approval
  • Satisfy that multitude of executives who own pari-mutual facilities

Seminole, pari-mutuels in battle for rights

Though the requirements are simple, the nuances involved are complex. The Seminole tribe has been burned by the state in the past. Gov. Rick Scott did not take action against pari-mutuels that offered poker-blackjack hybrid games that infringed on the tribe’s blackjack exclusivity. As a result, the tribe stopped making the $350 million payment required to run casinos in the state.

The pari-mutuels, on the other hand, want to expand their operations to generate more revenue. Also, facility owners would likely enjoy the freedom that modified legislation would bring.

For example, real estate tycoon Jeffrey Soffer wants to transfer a gaming permit between counties, a move that would require updated legislation. Eric Trump, son of former President Donald Trump, expressed a desire to convert Trump National Doral, a well-known golf course, into a gaming destination.

New gaming bill in the works?

Marc Dunbar, an attorney who represents the Seminole tribe but does not speak on their behalf, recently told PlayFl that Sen. Travis Hutson may be crafting a gaming bill. Hutson’s bill would be the seventh submitted to the Senate in the past few months.

Existing gambling bills in the Senate do not include special concessions or protections for the Seminole. Rather, they outline the fees, regulations, and application process that would be needed to launch expanded gambling in the state.

Dunbar did not offer any specifics, and Hutson has not released any information regarding the bill he is allegedly putting together.

However, if past events are any indication, his bill will likely contain provisions specific to the Seminole Tribe. In 2018, Hutson presented a bill to the Senate that renewed the tribe’s deal with the state for 20 years. The bill would’ve given the tribe exclusive rights over blackjack and slots outside of South Florida.

Ironically, in an interview with Florida Politics Hutson used the same words to describe the negotiations over his 2018 bill as DeSantis did about the recent negotiations: “We’re close.”

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JR Duren

J.R. Duren has covered the gambling beats for more than a dozen states for Catena Media since 2015. His past reporting experience includes two years at the Villages Daily Sun, and he is a first-place winner at the Florida Press Club Excellence in Journalism Contest.

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