As he sifts through a proposed gambling deal that could have a wide-ranging impact on the state’s pari-mutuel facilities, Gov. Ron DeSantis huddled Friday morning with more than a dozen gambling operators and lobbyists — including dog- and horse-track owners, cardroom executives and horse breeders — shortly after he met with leaders of the Seminole Tribe of Florida.
DeSantis started at 9 a.m. by meeting with multiple representatives of the tribe, including Chairman Marcellus Osceola; Jim Allen, CEO of Seminole Gaming; and Jim Shore, the Seminoles’ general counsel, tribe spokesman Gary Bitner told The News Service of Florida.
Bitner described the talks as “cordial.”
Shortly after that meeting, pari-mutuel owners and operators — accompanied by their lobbyists — streamed into the governor’s plaza-level large conference room in the Capitol for a nearly 90-minute discussion that was unusual in the highly competitive industry. Representatives of the Poarch Band of Creek Indians, who operate a poker room in North Florida, were also present.
Numerous participants who spoke to The News Service of Florida after the gathering praised DeSantis for calling the summit, as well as for his knowledge of the complicated subject matter, frequently referred to as a “three-dimensional game of chess” by lawmakers who’ve attempted to craft gambling deals in the past.
“I have a tremendous respect for him. It’s the first time since I’ve been involved that he’s gotten this whole group together. There’s never been a time that the industry’s been together and hasn’t wanted to kill itself. He got the horsemen, he got the breeders, he got everybody, and for that, I think he gets tremendous respect,” Barbara Havenick, whose family owns pari-mutuels in Miami-Dade County and Southwest Florida, told the News Service.
The governor’s office had no comment on the meetings when asked about them Friday afternoon.
Powerful Sen. Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, and Seminole leaders have worked in recent weeks to negotiate a deal that could make major changes in the gambling industry. Any deal, however, also would need support from DeSantis and the House.
The proposed 31-year deal with the tribe — more than a decade longer than a current agreement, known as a “compact,” — would open the door for sports betting at the Seminoles’ casinos as well as at Florida racetracks and jai alai frontons, with the tribe acting as a “hub.” Allowing in-play sports betting, known as “proposition” or “prop” bets, at professional sports arenas is also in the mix.
By allowing the tribe to serve as a “hub” for sports betting at pari-mutuels and arenas, Simpson has hoped to sidestep a constitutional amendment approved by voters in November. The amendment requires statewide votes on proposals for casino-style gambling. Voter approval is not required for gambling on tribal lands, which is regulated under federal law.
Earlier this week, DeSantis said he and his lawyers were scrutinizing the proposal, which remained a closely guarded secret prior to his sit-down with the pari-mutuel contingent. But the governor, a Harvard Law School graduate, is questioning some of the provisions of the deal, such as allowing live bets as professional games are being played. A former college baseball player, DeSantis called that idea a “big moral hazard.”
One of the other key sticking points remains controversial “designated player” card games offered at many of the pari-mutuel cardrooms. Those games have been at the heart of a legal dispute between the state and the tribe.
The Seminoles — and a federal judge — have maintained that the card games violate a 2010 gambling agreement with the state that gave the tribe “exclusivity” over offering banked card games, such as blackjack. Under a settlement with former Gov. Rick Scott, the tribe is continuing to pay about $350 million a year to the state.
But that agreement expires on May 31, prompting discussions about a new compact, which would severely pare the designated player games.
But pari-mutuel cardrooms, especially those outside of Miami-Dade and Broward counties that are not allowed to have slot machines, have grown to rely heavily on the lucrative designed-player games as their major sources of revenue. They maintain that thousands of jobs — and tens of millions of dollars in revenue for the operators — would be lost, were the games to go away.
DeSantis asked probing questions about the games, according to several people who attended the Friday meeting.
“He wanted to know what they meant to our business. We expressed to him that’s a very important part of our business. It’s an even more-important part for some of the other pari-mutuels,” Palm Beach Kennel Club President Patrick Rooney, a former state representative, told the News Service.
“We hope he’ll just let us do what we’re doing with them and that’s it,” Rooney, accompanied by lobbyist Brian Ballard, said.
DeSantis “listened to all of our concerns,” Rooney said.
“Obviously in the pari-mutuel industry you have a lot of diverging and diverse interests, but I think the governor did a good job, number one, just bringing us all together,” he added.
Almost a third of the meeting was devoted to a discussion of horse racing in Florida. Horse breeders and others stressed to DeSantis that the industry has a multibillion-dollar impact on the state’s economy.
Florida voters last year approved a constitutional amendment that will ban greyhound racing while allowing tracks to keep more profitable cardrooms and, for tracks that have them, slot machines, a process known as “decoupling.”
The proposed agreement under discussion also would allow horse tracks and jai alai operators to decouple, something the pari-mutuels have long sought but which jai alai players and the state’s horse breeders vigorously oppose.
“The governor spent over an hour intently listening and asking questions to better understand the pari-mutuels and issues related to the proposed compact,” lobbyist Nick Iarossi, whose clients include Melbourne Greyhound Park and Jacksonville Greyhound Racing, said in an interview. “He really is taking a thoughtful approach to meeting with all stakeholders to ensure he understands all the impacts before making a decision.”
While DeSantis is in the information-gathering phase, time on the legislative clock is running out, according to House Speaker José Oliva, who has indicated the House is unlikely to support a deal that treats the pari-mutuels harshly.
“I have had no formal conversations on gaming at this point,” Oliva, R-Miami Lakes, said Friday, adding that it is getting “late in the process” to finalize a compact before the annual legislative session is slated to conclude May 3.
Even if lawmakers don’t approve a compact during the regular session, negotiations could continue throughout the summer. If DeSantis and legislative leaders settle on a deal with the tribe later, the Legislature could come back to Tallahassee for a quick special session to address the matter.
For now, pari-mutuel operators left the Capitol feeling reassured.
“I feel like he listened to us. I think he heard the economics, the jobs. I really was very impressed. I think he heard us,” Havenick said.
— Staff writer Ana Ceballos contributed to this report.