Special Session Possible In Florida

Florida House Speaker Richard Corcoran (l.) may call a special session over potentially losing millions in annual payments from the Seminole Tribe in return for exclusivity. Tribal attorney Barry Richard said payments would stop "only if they think there is a substantial impact on their financial circumstances, or they think they are paying too much money for the exclusivity."

Florida lawmakers are floating the idea of calling a special session on April 23 to address the possibility of losing more hundreds of millions dollars annually in casino revenue sharing payments from the Seminole Tribe of Florida. House Speaker Richard Corcoran said, “The Seminoles’ potential to completely walk away jeopardizes the stability of the state budget. We would be forced to cut between $390 and $441 million in general revenue, or we would have to allow our reserves to be drained, which could jeopardize our state bond rating.”

Senate President-designate Bill Galvano “no date has been set” for a special session, but if one were to be scheduled it would take place prior to the end of the fiscal year on June 30. McKinley Lewis, a spokesman for Governor Rick Scott, said Scott was “made aware that the legislature was looking at this issue” and “will review any proposal they put forward.”

In the last fiscal year, the Seminoles paid the state slightly more than $290 million as part of a 2010 agreement guaranteeing the tribe exclusivity to offer blackjack and other banked card games. The Seminoles sued the state because it allowed a hybrid of poker and blackjack the tribe claimed was too similar to blackjack, to which they have the exclusive right to offer in Florida.

The Seminoles and the state settled a lawsuit over blackjack, allowing them to offer the game until 2030. However, the Tribe’s continued payments to the state depend on state gambling regulators conducting “aggressive enforcement” against games that encroach on the tribe’s exclusivity. Tribal attorney Barry Richard said, “The tribe is satisfied” that the Department of Business and Professional Regulation has been “acting aggressively, closing down designated player games at parimutuels that operated them.”

The tribe and the state had agreed to a “forbearance period” which ended March 31. Now the tribe may stop making revenue sharing payments. Richard said, “They’re not just going to stop paying just because they have the right to.” However, he stated if legislators return with the same offers they made in the most recent session, “that won’t fly. They’ll look at what happens with pending litigation. If any of that fails to resolve the problem, and the problem becomes significant enough, then they might look at something. And that might not mean a complete termination of payments. The only reason the tribe would terminate payment is if they think there is a substantial impact on their financial circumstances, or they think they are paying too much money for the exclusivity — given that it’s been infringed upon. Then, they would terminate or reduce the payments.”

The Seminoles have sued 25 operators of so-called electronic gambling parlors in the Jacksonville area, claiming those operations violate the tribe’s exclusivity deal with the state. Richard said most likely the tribe will see how those cases are resolved before determining whether or not to cease payments to the state. A trial is set for June 27.

The Seminoles also are defending an appeal of a ruling by a Tallahassee judge that pre-reveal games are illegal slots.

Richard added the tribe remains open to talks with legislators. “If the legislature wants to bring them a proposal that’s been signed off on by everybody, they are happy to look at it,” he said. However, “The tribe doesn’t want to have non-productive conversation with one chamber or the legislature, or some members of leadership, and then have it go back to others who disagree with it.”

Richard summarized, “Knowing the tribe, they don’t act precipitously. They don’t want to change their relationship with the state. They’ll only do it if they perceive circumstances to be a meaningful threat to their economic well-being. Or if they think if they’re paying a lot of money and not getting what they’re paying for.”

The Seminoles and Disney Worldwide are the primary backers of a constitutional amendment that will appear on the November ballot, requiring voters statewide to approve any future expansion of gambling. If 60 percent of voters approve the measure, legislators will have less influence over all gaming decisions, though the amendment includes a carve-out to allowing lawmakers “to negotiate gaming compacts for the conduct of casino gambling on tribal lands.”

John Sowinski, president of No Casinos, the group behind the amendment, wrote in a letter to Corcoran and Senate President Joe Negron, “If ever there was an issue that the Legislature has already spent too much time, energy, intellectual capacity and political capital, it is gambling.” He said the idea of calling a special session was a “last ditch effort by gambling interests” and “a fictional crisis manufactured by gambling lobbyists. You can tell the gambling interests and assure the people of Florida that public policy is not for sale in Tallahassee by resisting gambling lobbyist pressure for a special session. Convening a special session that will be seen as a genuflection to the gambling industry would provide voters with a perfect illustration of why Amendment 3 is so badly needed.”

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