With time running out in the legislative session and a gambling deal all but dead in the Senate, industry lobbyists and the Seminole Tribe scrambled to put together a new deal that included major concessions from the tribe regarding slot machines.
Although the talks never resulted in a piece of legislation, or even a draft bill, they marked the first time in recent history the Seminoles and pari-mutuel operators, traditionally at odds, have worked together to nail down an agreement palatable to the tribe, the pari-mutuel industry and the Legislature.
"There was the framework for a deal that I believe had many votes in the House and probably 26 to 28 votes in the Senate," lobbyist Brian Ballard, who represents the Palm Beach Kennel Club and other gambling interests, said in an interview. "I think we ran out of time."
Some lawmakers blamed their inability to reach consensus on a gambling deal this year on the state's horse- and dog-track operators. But the industry points the finger at Senate President Andy Gardiner, an anti-gambling Orlando Republican who denies blocking a vote on the gambling bill.
The fate of Florida's gambling landscape now rests with the courts, poised to rule on two major lawsuits that could redefine the Seminoles' gaming operations – and how much money the state reaps from it – and possibly open the door for slot machines at pari-mutuels throughout the state, even without the authorization of the Legislature.
The attempt by the pari-mutuel industry and the Seminoles to reach a deal was one of the rare occasions in which pari-mutuel operators set aside their intra-industry animus, historically focused on keeping the competition from gaining any new benefits.
The discussions, which went on for weeks, culminated in a series of telephone calls between gambling lobbyists and the tribe's chief negotiator, Jim Allen, in the days leading up to the final week of the legislative session, which ended Friday.
Gambling lobbyists hoped to keep alive a seemingly doomed Senate bill with the aim of amending the proposal on the chamber floor, according to interviews with multiple lobbyists and lawmakers involved in the discussions.
The bill stalled in the Senate Appropriations Committee during the session's penultimate week. Sen. Rob Bradley, the measure's sponsor, likened the proposal to a Christmas tree.
"The bill had a lot of ornaments added to it, and the tree eventually gets too many ornaments and it falls over," Bradley said when asked why he asked the budget committee to take a pass on the measure.
But, even as the bill languished in the Senate, the Seminoles and pari-mutuel industry representatives were working on the framework of a deal that gambling lobbyists contend ultimately could have passed both chambers.
"The reality of it was the tree was going to be significantly lightened, and leadership knew that," Marc Dunbar, a partner with the Jones Walker law firm and a lobbyist who represents the Stronach Group, which owns Gulfstream Park Racing in Broward County, told The News Service of Florida. "The Senate president, exercising his privilege as a caucus of one, decided to shut things down. That is the unequivocal truth."
Gardiner has repeatedly denied that he blocked the Senate measure from reaching the chamber floor for a full vote.
"President Gardiner says any such allegation is categorically untrue," Gardiner's spokeswoman Katie Betta said in an email Tuesday.
Ballard countered that "we almost could have come up with anything and the Senate leadership would not have heard the bill."
Gov. Rick Scott and Seminole tribal leader James Billie in December signed a proposed deal, called a "compact," that would have allowed the tribe to add craps and roulette to its casino operations. In exchange, the Seminoles pledged to pay the state $3 billion over seven years, in a 20-year agreement that would have netted the state about $9 billion over the life of the contract.
The compact also would have permitted, but not expressly authorized, slots at the Palm Beach Kennel Club and at a new facility in Miami-Dade County. The compact also included other perks for the pari-mutuel industry, but not enough to garner the support necessary make it through the critical Senate Regulated Industries Committee.
To get the committee's approval, Sen. Joe Negron backed a plan that would have allowed slot machines at pari-mutuels in at least five counties where voters have approved them, including Palm Beach.
The blueprint crafted by the gambling industry and the Seminoles would have significantly scaled back the Negron proposal, according to lobbyists involved in the negotiations.
Under the revised plan, pari-mutuels in at five counties where voters have approved slots – Brevard, Gadsden, Lee, Palm Beach and Washington – could have phased in the machines over two to four years, depending on the facilities.
The tribe could also have operated slot machines in pari-mutuels near its Tampa Hard Rock facility, if voters approved. In exchange, the Seminoles would have shared up to a third of the earnings with the facilities. And the tribe could have launched poker and slots at its Fort Pierce property, something the agreement with Scott would not have permitted.
Mardi Gras Casino in Hallandale Beach would have been allowed to move west, with the goal of joining forces with the Florida Panthers hockey team.
The plan would have capped the total number of slot machines in pari-mutuels statewide at 16,000, and also put a limit on how many slots the Seminoles could operate. The tax rate on slots at Florida pari-mutuels would have been lowered to 25 percent, down from the current 35 percent rate.
The Seminoles would have paid the state the same amount of money as pledged under the proposed compact signed by Scott, at least until the new slots came online. After that, the pari-mutuels would have made up the difference, about $120 million a year, according to those close to the talks.
Gambling lobbyists had hoped to get the Senate Appropriations Committee to move the bill, thereby keeping it in play so it could have been amended in the final days of the session. Meanwhile, the lobbyists worked with House Finance & Tax Chairman Matt Gaetz, who successfully shepherded a revamped proposal through his committee on Feb. 29, setting it up for a full House vote.
With the Senate bill on the agenda for the Senate Appropriations Committee's March 1 meeting, Stronach Group executive Keith Brackpool flew to Tallahassee from California to "make a very clear plea" to Senate leaders to allow a vote on the measure, Dunbar said.
According to Dunbar, the Stronach Group is preparing to invest up to $400 million in its operations in Maryland, Florida or California.
"Our preference would be to do it in Florida, if the Legislature would have passed this bill. But we are going to execute on our plans. We need to do some things. And the Legislature walked away from us," Dunbar said.
Senate Appropriations Chairman Tom Lee said that, while he heard there was a deal in the works in the final weeks of the session, he was never briefed on the details.
"I don't know what their deal looked like," Lee, R-Brandon, said in an interview Tuesday.
Lee also denied that Gardiner stopped the gambling bill from being heard.
"I do think there was a point at which the Senate lost interest. I don't know that it was necessarily on the merits of anything in particular," Lee said.
The bill that died during the session could have created a "razor-wire fence" around gambling activities in Florida for the next two decades, Dunbar said.
Instead, the shape of the state's gambling footprint could be determined by the courts.
"That's a conscious abdication to another branch of government. And the consequences of it lie on the person in the Legislature who made that decision, not on the court for doing its job," Dunbar said.