Florida Gambling Expansion Bill Survives First Legislative Hurdle

A bill that calls for statewide gambling expansion has passed a vote in the Florida Senate’s Regulated Industries Committee. Sponsored by Sen. Bill Galvano, the proposed 112-page law will next be heard in the Committee on Appropriations. If it gains the necessary support there, the legislation will next advance to the Senate floor.

Different forms of gambling expansion have been proposed for several years now, but none of them have gained traction in the state Legislature. The first positive development for the latest bill on the matter has encouraged proponents that 2017 may be the year when such expansion will indeed take place.

Generally speaking, Senate Bill 8 will allow for the addition of more slot machines at more gambling facilities. In order for this to be possible, the legislative piece proposes a change in the definition of “eligible facility.” Under SB 8, slots will be legal in all counties where the operation of the devices has been approved in a countywide referendum. Other counties will be able add slot machines, if their residents vote positively on the move at referendums that can take place after January 1, 2018.

Sen. Galvano has also proposed what has been defined as ‘decoupling’, a measure that would allow state dog and horse tracks to feature other gambling options such as card games and slots without having to run live races.

In addition, SB 8 will allow the Seminole Tribe, which operates a number of casinos across Florida, to offer different banked table games, including craps, roulette, and sic-bo. However, the tribe will no longer have monopoly over the provision of blackjack around the state.

Florida lawmakers and tribal officials have been battling over the blackjack exclusivity for two years now. Under a five-year compact signed in 2010, the tribe was supposed to be the sole blackjack operator around the state. In exchange, it had to contribute $1 billion of its revenue to Florida’s coffers.

The exclusivity period expired in July 2015, but the Seminoles kept on providing blackjack at their casinos, arguing that the state had violated the 2010 agreement by allowing other, non-tribal, gambling venues to run designated table games that mimicked their offering.

The two parties have been bickering since then, failing to find a solution to their dispute. An agreement was almost negotiated in 2016. Under it, the tribe would have been allowed to keep its monopoly over blackjack in exchange for $3 billion over the first seven years of the exclusivity period. However, the Florida Legislature scrapped the plan, leaving the issue unresolved.

In late 2016, a US District Judge sided with the Seminoles, giving them the green light to operate blackjack until 2030. It has become clear earlier in January that the state has appealed the ruling.

Although SB 8 has passed its first major hurdle in the Legislature, it is still unclear whether the Senate will nod the bill. Yet, according to industry insiders, the proposed legislation seems to have good chances to win Senators’ favor. It is believed, however, that the House may prove to be the real stumbling block as it has long voiced opposition to any attempts for even the slightest gambling expansion in the state.

Upon introducing his bill, Sen. Galvano has pointed out that the gambling expansion move may result in $575 million entering the state’s coffers, an amount that could boost significantly Florida’s tight budget. This may be a good reason for House Representatives to give the effort consideration.

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