There are some things that state legislatures do reasonably well, including hammering out budgets and proposing bills to make their state better.
But slot rules, casino licenses and gambling protocols should be left to those with a longtime background in such matters, argues Sen. Maria Sachs, D-Delray Beach. Four of the past five years, Sachs has proposed that Florida create a gaming commission. Each time the bill has died before reaching the floor.
“Something worthwhile in the legislature takes time, a lot of time,” says Sachs, who has served in the Florida House and Senate since 2006. “Gambling didn’t start overnight in the state, it can’t be changed overnight.”
Florida has been thrashing around larger gambling issues for decades now, including whether the state should allow hotel-resort casinos and how much the Seminole Tribe of Florida should pay for a monopoly outside of South Florida. While the legislature has tried to mold those questions into a long-term comprehensive policy, the state has allowed smaller issues to grow into monster-sized problems.
The Florida Division of Pari-Mutuel Wagering oversees gambling for the state. The division is part of the Department of Business and Professional Regulation, whose director is selected by the Governor. Since 2011, when Rick Scott took over, the Division of Pari-Mutuel Wagering has zigged and zagged.
Approved gambling on rodeo-style barrel racing – two competitors riding as fast as they can around a large barrel and back – in upper Northwest Florida. That pari-mutuel license cleared the way for poker and now there is a court case that might allow slots. But it took the Governor’s interference to get barrel racing through. His chief of staff first essentially fired the existing director, who had denied the barrel racing permit.
Flip-flopped in the past 12 months on whether to allow pari-mutuels to offer Three-Card Poker, Ultimate Texas Hold ‘em and other games under the definition of “poker.” The Seminoles have exclusive rights to banked card games in Florida, but the state, through the PMW, first approved the games, only to backtrack after pari-mutuels invested in their installation. Yep, that means another court case.
Florida legislators cite those two cases as reasons for holding up on larger policy. The barrel racing case could bring slots to six Florida counties – and void part of a compact with the Seminoles. The banked card games case also affects the compact, although less so.
“The elected representatives of the people should decide the future of gaming throughout the state. These questions, as difficult as they may be for us in the legislature, should not be left for the courts to decide,” says Sachs.
“Some legislators represent constituents who are opposed for moral reasons, others because it competes with local businesses, but we need to get a consensus for the state to move forward. The past gridlock has not been beneficial to anyone. This is why we need a commission.”
“We’re not Kansas.”
Her appeal has received some support, including from House Speaker Steve Crisafulli, R-Merritt Island, who said in December it was time for the state to have such an oversight commission that could focus every day on gaming issues.
Sachs also has a reply for those who are against adding more government.
“I wouldn’t have said this last year but this makes government more efficient, more streamlined,” she says. “I love the people we have, but gaming is a tough business and it should be handled by those who know the business. That’s the model other states use.”
As commercial casinos have expanded into more states in recent years, most have included a regulatory commission – something the casinos themselves support because it brings about more-consistent rules and policy.
“I think there are two things we need to do,” Sachs says. “First we need to recognize that we’re a gambling state. We have gambling, and we need to step up and do it in a professional way. Then we need to be professional about it. You need a system to administer, enforce and regulate it.”
Left unsaid: Pari-mutuel and anti-casino interests are a money source. By letting go of their influence on gambling, the campaign funding could be less.
“The important thing is to have a professionally run commission to make sure not only the people are safeguarded, but also those who game and those in the business of gaming. Let’s get it out of the hands of politicians and into the hands of professionals.”