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Senate President Backs Allowing Voter-Approved Slots

Jeff Kubina

TALLAHASSEE — Amid a tangle of legal issues, Senate President Joe Negron on Tuesday signaled support for allowing slot machines in counties where voters have approved expanded gambling.

Voters in Duval and St. Lucie counties last month approved referendums to allow slot machines at pari-mutuel facilities, joining six other counties that had done so earlier.

But the lucrative machines have not started whirling in the counties as the gambling industry, regulators and lawmakers watch a case at the Florida Supreme Court and legal issues involving the Seminole Tribe of Florida.

At a breakfast meeting Tuesday with reporters, Negron said he thinks the Legislature should follow the will of voters if slot machines are approved in referendums.

"I'm not encouraging counties to do that, but if voters in a particular county approve more gaming opportunities, I think we should respect the decision of those citizens and those communities to shape the way they want their communities to look," Negron, R-Stuart said. "And we should honor that, rather than stand in the way of it and substitute our judgment for the judgment of the voters."

Under a 2004 constitutional amendment, slot machines are allowed at pari-mutuel facilities in Broward and Miami-Dade counties. But a closely watched lawsuit is pending at the Florida Supreme Court about whether pari-mutuels in other counties can offer the machines after voter referendums.

The Supreme Court heard arguments in June in the case, which involves Gretna Racing in Gadsden County and the interpretation of a 2009 gambling law. The case went to the Supreme Court after the 1st District Court of Appeal ruled that the pari-mutuel could not have slot machines without the authorization of the Legislature, despite county voters' approval.

Meanwhile, Gov. Rick Scott's administration has started trying to negotiate a revised gambling agreement, known as a "compact," with the Seminole Tribe that also deals with slot machines.

Under a 2010 compact, the Seminole Tribe was given exclusive rights to offer certain games, including slot machines, in exchange for payments to the state. The state and the tribe have been locked in a legal battle about the expiration last year of part of the compact dealing with "banked" card games, such as blackjack.

A federal judge last month ruled that the state had violated the tribe's exclusive rights to offer those games, giving added impetus to the negotiations. But negotiations about a revised compact also could involve whether the tribe would have exclusive rights to offer slot machines outside of Broward and Miami-Dade counties — and how that would affect the counties where voters have approved referendums.

Representatives of the Scott administration and the tribe met early this month. But Gary Bitner, a tribe spokesman, declined Tuesday to provide details about the talks. "The Seminole Tribe is open to discussions and negotiations as part of its continuing desire to finalize a new gaming compact with the state of Florida, but the tribe prefers not to negotiate in the media," he said in a prepared statement.

Negron said Sen. Bill Galvano, a Bradenton Republican who is slated to become the next Senate president, will take the chamber's lead in discussions about the compact. If a deal is reached with the tribe, it would have to be approved by the Legislature.

Before moving to the Senate, Galvano was the House's chief negotiator when the Legislature signed off on the 2010 compact with the tribe. After Negron's meeting Tuesday with reporters, spokeswoman Katie Betta said the president thinks a solution can be reached to address the issues of the compact and the slots referendums.

"President Negron said at the breakfast that he cannot predict the final resolution of this issue at this juncture, but he does believe there is a way to strike a balance between the voter-approved slots and the (exclusivity) necessary for a compact with the Seminole Tribe," Betta said in an email.

Scott proposed a $3 billion, seven-year compact before the 2016 legislative session, but it did not pass. The issue is difficult politically for a number of reasons, including that the House has traditionally opposed expanded gambling.

But Negron indicated Tuesday that trying to address the issues will be a priority as lawmakers meet during the 2017 session.

"I think it's important that we explore the opportunity to ratify the compact and also be fair to the other participants in the gaming industry, the pari-mutuels and others that have longtime investments in the state, employ thousands of people, are important parts of the corporate communities that they represent," Negron said. "It's an important priority for me to try to have a compact ratified and to move forward on gaming, not only from a revenue point of view, but also from an industry predictability perspective."

Along with Duval, St. Lucie and Gadsden counties slots referendums have been approved in Brevard, Hamilton, Lee, Palm Beach and Washington counties.

"I think if the voters have approved it by referendum, I don't think the Legislature should stand in the way," Negron said.

Jim Saunders is the Executive Editor of The News Service Of Florida.
Dara Kam is the Senior Reporter of The News Service Of Florida.