Gov. Scott temperature-taking on gambling deal causes fever


Shuttle diplomacy by Gov. Rick Scott’s envoys about a possible deal with the Seminole Tribe did something many considered impossible in the cutthroat arena of gambling.

Scott has united a broad array of gambling owners, operators and lobbyists — whom one former regulator characterized as ordinarily “more concerned with what the other guy doesn’t get than what they get” — in opposition to an election-year plan deemed dead on arrival by Republican leaders in both chambers.

The reaction from lawmakers may also have killed the possibility of a special session next month, or at least sent Scott’s team back to the negotiating table.

Scott is faced with “passing probably the toughest bill in the toughest area of law with all of the political implications and the harsh reality of incoming players with their power versus outgoing folks wanting to leave with no strike-outs,” said Brian Ballard, a lobbyist who represents a division of gambling conglomerate Genting Group and the Palm Beach Kennel Club.

“It would be tough on an issue they had unanimity on, but on this issue. … It’s so tough I would be really, really surprised if it were tried at all,” Ballard, a chief fundraiser for Scott’s re-election effort, said. “I would be shocked and stunned if something actually were to pass.”

Lt. Gov. Carlos Lopez-Cantera, Scott’s general counsel Pete Antonacci and chief of staff Adam Hollingsworth met with leaders in the House and Senate last week to discuss outlines of a new agreement with the Seminoles. Scott’s team reportedly told House Speaker Will Weatherford and Senate President Don Gaetz the governor was “close to” finalizing a deal with the tribe.

Scott is renegotiating a portion of the current gambling compact, signed by then-Gov. Charlie Crist in 2010, that gave the Seminoles “exclusive” rights to blackjack at seven of its Florida locations in exchange for a minimum of $1 billion over five years. That part of the 2010 deal expires on Aug. 1, 2015. The Seminoles have so far exceeded their minimum payments to the state.

Scott is now considering allowing the Seminoles to open more casinos — including one on a 50-acre property owned by the tribe in Fort Pierce — and add roulette and craps to some of their existing facilities. The tribe could also expand its Broward County operations as well as its facility in Brighton. The price tag? A guarantee of $2.5 billion over seven years, which is higher than the Seminoles’ current $250 million minimum annual obligation.

A spokesman for the Seminoles said Tuesday morning the tribe “is not commenting at this time.”

Sen. Tom Lee, R-Brandon, confirmed that those elements were discussed in a recent briefing by Scott’s team.

“Naturally, they’re trying to test the temperature of the leadership…and trying to determine, based upon their knowledge of what’s in their negotiated agreement and the comments they’re getting back from the members, whether or not they’ve got a landing zone for a special session,” Lee, a former Senate president, said. “Nobody wants to come up here and waste 50 grand a day and play in the sandbox for nothing.”

Gaetz, R-Niceville, said Lopez-Cantera approached him last week about the possibility of a special session

Lopez-Cantera, a former House majority leader, told Gaetz “we don’t have a deal but we might have a deal and we just want to take your temperature to see how a compact might be received,” the Senate president told reporters Monday.

“I said, ‘I can’t tell you how it would be received until you tell me what it is,’ ” Gaetz said.

Even getting lawmakers to agree on a different measure that would have required tracks to report greyhound injuries “turned into a pretty contentious issue,” Gaetz said. “Anytime gaming gets mentioned, it’s like red meat in the middle of the table with a bunch of carnivores around because of all the interests groups that have a stake in the process.”

Scott needs the support of legislators, who sued Crist after he struck a deal without their consent. The Florida Supreme Court decided that, while the governor has the right to negotiate with the tribe, the Legislature has to ratify the agreement.

And Scott also needs the support of Democrats in the House, which has historically opposed gambling and which has a bloc of more than two dozen GOP lawmakers who will vote against any gambling-related legislation. House Democrats say Scott’s team has failed to reach out to them, but Rep. Jim Waldman said he met recently with Lopez-Cantera, at Waldman’s request.

Waldman said Democrats won’t back a compact unless it includes additional games for pari-mutuels in Broward and Miami-Dade counties and slot machines for the Palm Beach dog track.

“The compact itself has to have enough of the wiggle room so that the state Legislature has the opportunity to do whatever they think ought to be done. If you grant exclusivity, you kill any type of discussion,” Waldman, D-Coconut Creek, said.

Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, said he hasn’t counted votes but “I know the Senate well enough to know that a compact that’s a giveaway to the Indians like Charlie Crist did will never pass in the Senate.”

Lee and other GOP Senate leaders contend that a special session is still a possibility, but sources close to Scott’s office said late Monday that the governor’s team is now floating the possibility of asking the Legislature to ratify the compact during the organizational session that follows the November elections.

As he campaigns for re-election, Scott may want to brag about getting a better deal — defined as more money for the state — from the Seminoles than Crist, his chief Democratic challenger.

But politically, Scott risks alienating supporters with deep pockets — including Genting, Las Vegas Sands owner Sheldon Adelson, Donald Trump, and the state’s existing pari-mutuel operators — by inking a deal considered favorable to the Seminoles.

Genting, Sands and Trump were among those banking on the Legislature’s approval of at least one casino resort in South Florida this year. But casino resorts fell flat after Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, said his chamber would not approve any gambling-related bill unless Scott had finalized negotiations with the Seminoles and unless it was accompanied by a constitutional amendment giving voters ability to decide about future gambling expansions.

Adelson has contributed $250,000 to Scott’s “Let’s Get to Work” campaign account. Resorts World Miami, a division of Genting seeking to open a casino in downtown Miami, gave $100,000 to Scott’s re-election effort last year and Resorts World Omni contributed $175,000 to the Republican Party of Florida last month.

Over the last two years, the Seminole Tribe of Florida contributed $500,000 to Scott’s political committee in September, and another $400,000 to the RPOF. The Seminoles also gave $75,000 to a political committee affiliated with the Florida House Democratic Caucus as well as $245,000 to the Florida Democratic Party.