TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) - A bid to bring more casinos and gambling to Florida collapsed yet again this year as state legislators were unable to reach an agreement on a comprehensive gambling bill.
Top Republicans announced Tuesday that they were giving up on any attempt to pass legislation during the annual session that is scheduled to end on Friday.
"We just couldn't get it across the finish line; we were too far apart," said Rep. Jose Felix Diaz, a Miami Republican who led negotiations for the Florida House.
This marks yet another year where the GOP-controlled Legislature was unable to piece together a bill amid a dizzying array of competing interests, including those in the gambling industry as well as those in the state's tourism industry who have been traditionally opposed to any wide expansion to gambling.
But the main reason the effort failed this year was due to a push by Senate President Joe Negron to allow eight counties across the state to add slot machines to existing dog and horse tracks.
Voters in those counties approved referendums authorizing slot machines, but state regulators and Attorney General Pam Bondi have said the tracks have no legal authority to add them. The state Supreme Court is currently considering a lawsuit challenging the state's position.
Negron said that the Legislature needed to respect the "will of the voters" in those counties, but House Republicans were unwilling to go along. Diaz pointed out that tracks in south Florida only won the right to add slot machines after voters approved a statewide referendum.
Gambling is supposed to be "illegal" in Florida, but really isn't. There's plenty of it around the state, often tucked away from theme parks and beaches in locations known mostly to locals and retirees who flock to Florida each winter.
While the state lacks high-end casinos like Las Vegas, the Seminole Tribe operates several casinos, including Hard Rock hotels and casinos in Tampa and Hollywood. Dog and horse tracks are scattered statewide, but only those in south Florida have been permitted to install slot machines, while only the tribe is authorized to offer blackjack. The state makes money off gambling, and has been paid nearly $2 billion since 2010 from the tribe.
Seven years ago the state reached an exclusive deal to let the tribe offer blackjack at many of its Florida casinos, but that provision expired in 2015. State officials have argued the tribe must stop offering blackjack, but the tribe sued and won the first round in court.
Because legislators have been unable to reach a deal this year, Florida's gambling landscape could be decided by the courts. Diaz said if the Supreme Court approves slot machines in eight counties it could prod legislators to hold a special session.
"Gaming is going to continue to keep expanding without us controlling it," said Sen. Bill Galvano, a Bradenton Republican and sponsor of a sweeping gambling bill.
The collapse of gambling talks may also doom efforts to resolve the murky legal status of fantasy sports.
Florida's attorney general back in 1991 issued an opinion that football fantasy leagues were a form of illegal gambling. But fantasy leagues have continued to flourish and expand since then, including the creation of daily fantasy leagues. Some legislators including Galvano say that fantasy leagues are illegal. His gambling bill included provisions that would have made it clear that fantasy sports is legal under Florida law.