Florida legislators reject attempt to clarify state’s regulation of slot machines

TALLAHASSEE -- State gambling regulators are in a bind.

They have indirectly authorized the expansion of gambling in the past six months as lawyers for parimutuels found holes in state laws and opened the door to slot machines at parimutuels across the state and table-game look-alikes at existing racinos.

Now state regulators worry that Florida’s porous gambling laws also might come with a cost: the loss of the $233 million annual check from the Seminole Tribe of Florida under its gambling compact with the state.

Tuesday, lawyers for the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation asked the Legislature for help in closing one of the loopholes that, they fear, threatens the compact with the tribe. They were turned away.

The Senate Regulated Industries Committee voted 7-3 to kill a bill that would have given the department the authority to decide what constitutes a slot machine and would have specifically excluded copy-cat games intended to simulate roulette wheels, craps tables, blackjack and other table games at the state’s parimutuels.

After the department imposed new rules on slot machines, a state hearing officer said the department did not have the authority to issue the rule.

The bill, by Sen. Thad Altman, R-Viera, attempted to give the department the authority to issue the rule and target new games that come in “under the ruse of being defined as a slot machine,” Altman said.

“We don’t believe the Legislature ever authorized them,’’ said Tim Nugesser, the department’s lobbyist. “We believe they violate the compact.’’

A legal opinion by the tribe’s lawyers says that a Senate proposal to regulate the slot machine look-alikes will violate the compact, but the tribe is not ready to withhold its checks, said Barry Richard, one of the lawyers. If the tribe stops payment, it would also lose its monopoly right to exclusive operation of its games.

But, Richard added, the tribe believes that at Internet cafes around the state, “these are slot machines.’’

“They are proliferating at a rapid rate.” Richard said. “They are competing with the tribe, and they are illegal.”

Under the 2010 compact signed by the state and the Seminoles, the tribe has the exclusive right to operate slot machines outside of Miami-Dade and Broward counties or it can withhold payments to the state.

But the committee agreed with lawyers for the company that makes the games that they operate like slot machines, even though they look like Las Vegas table games.

Meanwhile, with the House and Senate at odds over how to handle the Internet cafes, and the tribe choosing not to challenge the existing law, few expect much to change this session.