- Associated Press - Wednesday, February 17, 2016

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) - Setting up a potential clash over the future of gambling in the state, the Florida Senate is pushing ahead with a proposal that could bring slot machines to counties outside of South Florida.

A Senate panel Wednesday approved a sweeping gambling deal with the Seminole Tribe of Florida, but the panel also voted 8-4 for a measure that would allow dog and horse tracks to add slot machines with the approval of local voters.

If the bill becomes law, it would allow slot machines at tracks in north Florida, as well as at tracks in Palm Beach, Brevard and Lee counties. The measure would also allow other counties to hold referendums on slot machines as well.

The proposal is a significant change from the initial $3 billion compact negotiated between Gov. Rick Scott and the Seminoles and could wind up causing the deal to collapse in the closing weeks of the session. In the past few years, House Republicans have been reluctant to consider major expansions of gambling.

“There’s definitely a point where the bill gets too heavy,” warned Rep. Jose Felix Diaz, the Miami Republican in charge of shepherding gambling legislation through the House. “I don’t know if we’re there or not.”

The compact worked out between Scott and the tribe allows the Seminoles to add roulette and craps at their existing casinos and allows them to keep their blackjack tables that were initially approved in 2010. As part of that deal, the tribe agreed to allow slot machines at a Palm Beach County track and a new casino in Miami-Dade. Changing the terms of the deal will require new approval from tribal leaders and could likely change how much money the state would receive.

Representatives of the tribe refused to say whether they would accept the change to get a bill passed during this year’s session.

Sen. Joe Negron, the Stuart Republican in line to become the next Senate president, was the architect of the new proposal to allow slot machines in other parts of the state. Negron defended the change by saying lawmakers should go along with the will of local voters who have already said yes to slot machines. He also suggested that the deal with the tribe would have been killed in the Senate without his proposal.

Sen. Jack Latvala, a Clearwater Republican who has been critical of the compact, said that just because Scott and the tribe reached a deal does not bind legislators to accept it.

“I don’t think there’s anything wrong in telling the tribe what we want as a Legislature,” Latvala said.

Sen. Rob Bradley, who was included in the initial negotiations, asked legislators to vote against Negron’s proposal. He took the rare step of personally writing a letter to members of the Senate Regulated Industries Committee ahead of time where he cautioned that if lawmakers fail to pass the existing deal with the tribe, then the future of gambling could be decided by the courts.

The Seminoles and the state of Florida have both filed lawsuits in federal court. The Florida Supreme Court also has agreed to consider a lawsuit that argues slot machines should be allowed at an existing track 25 miles west of Tallahassee.

“If the Legislature punts, we could end up with the most significant expansion of gaming in Florida history while taxpayers only get a fraction of what they receive from gaming operations in the present arrangement,” Bradley wrote. “Such an outcome is not acceptable to any of us.”

Lawmakers have roughly three weeks left to craft a bill. The session ends March 11.

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This story has been updated to correct the first name of Rep. Jose Felix Diaz.

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