Editorial: Scott must help see new gaming pact through

Staff Writer
Palm Beach Post
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Florida Gov. Rick Scott (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Give Gov. Rick Scott credit for finally hammering out a new gambling compact with the Seminole Tribe of Florida.

But it ain’t over. Not by a long shot.

As critics and legislators were quick to point out, Scott’s $3 billion deal — a major expansion of gambling in the state of Florida — is not perfect by any means. For instance, while Palm Beach County has a chance to step into the winner’s circle with new slot machines, other counties with dog tracks are shut out.

That simply won’t do if this (or any) deal has any chance of making it through the Legislature — especially a typically reluctant House. Already, anti-gambling foes are saying this deal pushes us farther down that hazardous road towards unfettered casino gambling. They are right to be skeptical of any deal that jeopardizes our tourism industry’s family-friendly image.

But if Florida is to allow some expansion of gambling, a reasonable way to go, given the potential for revenues, Scott’s deal provides a framework for the Legislature to move forward. What the deal now needs is for Scott to stay engaged and help guide it through what’s sure to be a tumultuous process in January.

Florida has had a lucrative, but difficult relationship with gambling ever since voters approved the Florida lottery in 1986. How difficult? Well, the last compact, which required the Seminole tribe to pay the state at least $1 billion over five years expired in July. The Seminoles, who currently retain exclusive rights to blackjack and other “banked” card games, satisfied that agreement. They could continue operating without paying the state a dime.

The Scott deal would bring in a guaranteed minimum of $3 billion in revenue over seven years, more than double the amount of the old pact on an annual basis. In exchange, the Seminoles would be adding craps and roulette to blackjack at their seven casinos in the state — but couldn’t expand for 20 years.

We agree with state Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, when he says: “Those are dollars that we’re going to be able to use for core services, education, transportation and health care.”

In the signed compact, the Seminoles also pledge “to make significant investments” — $1.8 billion — in their gambling facilities. Most of that would be spent on non-gaming construction like hotel rooms.

Animal rights groups should be pleased because the the new deal allows dog tracks around the state — like the Palm Beach Kennel Club — to stop racing greyhounds, but continue offering lucrative card rooms. It would also allow parimutuel casinos — including a new facility in Miami-Dade County — to open with slot machines, with voter approval.

The owners of the Kennel Club, who have been clamoring for slots for years, would be allowed to make 750 terminals available. The dog track would spend $100 million to $150 million to build a new casino on its property and hire 1,500 to 2,000 people, Patrick Rooney Sr., chief executive of Palm Beach Kennel Club, told The Post’s John Kennedy.

“We’re up at bat, and the only question would be the Legislature approving it or not,” Rooney said.

Right. But allowing the Palm Beach County dog track to add slots is considered a snub to five overlooked counties where voters have given slots a thumbs-up. That makes for long odds in the Legislature. As Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, told the News Service Florida: “I just have a problem picking one winner and five losers. I don’t know how we can do that.”

Senate President Andy Gardiner and House Speaker Steve Crisafulli didn’t sound much more confident, largely for the same reason. “As (Scott) knows, there are no guarantees in this process. We’ll just have to wait and see, to see what happens,” he said. “Certainly, the compact piece is important. But … it’s what else is there that potentially needs to be looked at.”

This is why Scott must stay hands-on.

The governor did well involving Bradley and Rep. Jose Feliz Diaz, R-Miami, in the months-long negotiations with the Seminole Tribe. They will certainly help carry the 61-page agreement’s water through both chambers.

The deal will likely morph to get legislative approval. That’s fine. But with $325 million to $550 million in guaranteed annual payments to the state on the line, “no deal” should be unacceptable.

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