When it comes to the hot-button issue of gambling, it's usually a safe bet that the Legislature doesn't do anything too bold or controversial in a big election year. But the early talk from Tallahassee this year has been different.
In a rather swift reversal, Republican legislative leaders have indicated they might be open to allowing full-fledged Las Vegas-style resort casinos in South Florida. The proposal being floated would allow one resort casino in Broward, another in Miami-Dade.
Is this talk real, or merely lip service to appease all the high-rolling gambling interests that have been filling campaign coffers in recent years?
We already have a semblance of casino life here: Parimutuel "racinos" offer slot machines, poker and horse/dog/jai-alai betting, and Seminole tribal casinos in Broward offer slots, poker and table games like blackjack.
The full Vegas-style package — with everything under one roof, including real roulette and craps — is still missing. Local gamblers and some tourists would surely appreciate it.
But nothing in convoluted, complex Florida comes easily. So expect a big, messy fight between existing gambling interests (the parimutuels and Seminoles), prospective newcomers (Las Vegas Sands Corp. and Malaysian-based Genting, which bought prime waterfront land in downtown Miami) and gambling opponents (Disney, which wants to protect its Orlando theme park/convention turf.) All have armies of lobbyists and wield considerable political influence through campaign contributions.
Because the November ballot features the governor's race and mid-term Congressional elections, I'd be shocked if anything got done in the upcoming legislative session, which runs from March through May. Odds seem more favorable for change in 2015.
Whatever the Legislature decides, it needs to weigh the impact on existing gambling revenues. Last year, the state got $233 million from seven Seminole casinos across Florida and $152 million from seven South Florida parimutuel racinos. That's $385 million in annual revenue — not exactly chump change, but a lot less than gambling proponents projected when they pushed for slots via a constitutional amendment last decade.
The big wild card in all this is the Seminoles' ongoing gambling compact with the state, a portion of which is set to expire next year. The 2010 compact allows for new resort casinos in Broward and Miami-Dade, but the tribe's voluntary payments to the state would be cut significantly.
And if those new resort casinos have table games like blackjack and baccarat, the Seminoles would be able to continue offering their table games without legislative approval when that part of the compact lapses in 2015. The slots portion of the compact runs through 2030.
If slot machines or casinos are allowed anywhere outside Broward and Miami-Dade, the tribe's payments to the state would completely stop, according to the compact. That means the bid to bring slots to the Palm Beach Kennel Club — which Palm Beach County voters backed in a nonbinding referendum — would hardly make economic sense.
The bottom line: New games and casinos might eventually come to town, but the Seminoles are still holding the best cards.