Category Archives: Steve Geller

Steve Geller named General Counsel of the National Counsel of Legislators from Gaming States (NCLGS); Speaks at NCLGS Winter Conference on casino saturation and what states can realistically expect in terms of Tourism from new casinos.

I attended the NCLGS Winter Conference in New Orleans, which was held from January 4-6.  NCLGS is the only organization of State lawmakers that meets on a regular basis to discuss issues in regard to gaming.  Members of NCLGS chair or are members of Legislative committees that are responsible for the regulation of gaming in their states.  NCLGS does not promote or oppose gaming, but is primarily concerned with proper regulation of the gambling industry.

I was the founder of NCLGS in 1995 and was its long-time first President.  I have remained very active in NCLGS, and was named its General Counsel at the Winter meeting.

On Sunday, January 6, I spoke on a NCLGS panel discussion.  The topic for the panel was When developing gaming public policy, legislators often envision casino out-of-state patrons who will do more than gamble in the casino. But with more than 1,000 casinos in 42 states, and with new casinos generally being built to smaller scale due to their proliferation, is it realistic to expect them to be tourism magnets? Are there many markets remaining where destination resorts could be developed to attract tourists? In this panel, operators will provide insight into what states can realistically expect, and what they must do to meet the goal of tourism promotion.”

In my remarks, I discussed the history of recent gaming expansion nationally.  This included Indian casinos, “riverboats gambling” (which is generally not conducted on what most people would consider to be “riverboats”, racinos, and commercial casinos.  The most common thread on the expansion of all of these except for Indian gambling is the desire for one state not to see its gambling dollars go to another state.  Once one state starts a type of gambling, there is increased pressure on neighboring states to have similar types of gambling.

It seems clear that the proliferation of casinos is generally reaching saturation in most areas.  For example, in the Northeastern United States, there appears to be a situation where new casinos are cannibalizing revenue from existing casinos.  Total gaming revenue may go up, but revenue per casino appears to be going down.  I gave quotes from both Moody’s and the American Gaming Association (AGA) discussing that while this appears to be most acute in the Northeast, it is a national issue.

It appears that building casinos by itself is no longer sufficient to attract new tourism.  It is unclear if casinos by themselves have been enough to attract tourists in recent years, or if casinos were only helpful as part of a general resort that attracted people.  Today, however, there is so much availability of casino gambling without the necessity of travelling that just providing additional opportunities for gambling will not  attract tourism.

Many casinos today are being built on a smaller scale, and are designed to attract primarily local patrons as opposed to tourists.  It seems that the new casinos that are attracting tourists are the “hubs” of the “hub and spoke” model.  This seems to work better with large casino chains with robust loyalty programs where casino patrons can gamble locally, and then cash in player rewards at larger resorts, where casino gambling is only part of the attraction.

Food and beverage, shows, and other diversions are a must to attract tourism dollars. Las Vegas and Atlantic City have recognized this. For example, in Las Vegas in the 1990’s, over ½ of the casino revenue came from gambling, while today it’s down to about 1/3.  As younger people lose interest in slot machines, which have traditionally been and remain the biggest gambling money-makers for casinos, casinos will need to do other things to attract people and remain relevant.  Some things being discussed are sports gambling, skill-based gaming, E-sports, and even virtual reality gaming.

The most important thing to remember is that the tax rate set by a state will determine what type of gambling takes place in that state.  Legislators will need to decide what is most important to them in their states.   Hub resort casinos require a lower tax rate to be successful than does a “slots barn”.  A state can make money on casino gambling with most tax rates, but lower tax rates result in more investment and jobs, while a higher tax rate can result in more total gambling-exclusive revenue.  A tax rate of 6% may get a state a Wynn or Bellagio-style luxury resorts, a tax rate of 25% may get a state a nice hotel franchise casino, a tax rate of 60% may get a state slot machines at convenience stores.  All may be viable models; all result in completely different outcomes based on the tax rate.

Proposed Amendment Three to the Florida Constitution (Voter Control of Gambling) is misleading and far more expansive than most people believe. The exact impact of the Amendment is unknown, and it may have an unintended impact on Florida’s two Indian tribes. If it is passed now, it will be extremely difficult to undo.

Summary: Proposed Amendment Three to the Florida Constitution (Voter Control of Gambling) is misleading and far more expansive than most people believe. The exact impact of the Amendment is unknown, and it may have an unintended impact on Florida’s two Indian tribes. If it is passed now, it will be extremely difficult to undo.

The Seminole Indian Tribe of Florida and Walt Disney World have been the two main funders of proposed Amendment Three to the Florida Constitution. This Amendment, entitled “Voter Control of Gambling in Florida”, takes away from the Legislature much of the Legislature’s authority to amend gambling laws in Florida (the extent of which is uncertain), and instead requires a “citizens’ initiative pursuant to Article XI, section 3, in order for casino gambling to be authorized under Florida law.”

Many people mistakenly believe that the “casino gambling” referred to in Amendment Three is limited to bringing in big new casinos. The wording of the Amendment cross-references 25 CFR 502.4, and includes
(a) Any House banking game, including but not limited to –
(1) Card games such as baccarat, chemin de fer, blackjack (21) and pai gow (if played as house banking games;
(2) Casino games such as roulette, craps, and keno
(b) Any slot machines as defined in 15 U.S.C. 1171(a)(1) and electronic or electromechanical facsimiles of any game of chance
(c) Any sports betting and pari-mutuel wagering, including but not limited to wagering on horse racing, dog racing or jai alai; or
(d) Lotteries

The wording of the amendment specifically exempts pari-mutuel wagering by stating “As used herein, ‘casino gambling’ does not include pari-mutuel wagering on horse racing, dog racing, or jai alai exhibitions.” Note that there is no exemption in Amendment Three for the lottery language listed in 25 CFR! Depending on how Amendment Three is interpreted, this could have a significant negative effect on the Florida Lottery.

It is unclear what the actual effect of Amendment Three would be if it passes. This could be the Gaming Attorney/Administrative Law Attorney/Appellate Attorney full employment act. The Amendment may or may not be retroactive, meaning that it may or may not prevent types of gambling that are already legal in Florida. As the Florida Supreme Court determined when they ruled that the language could go on the ballot:
“The opponents primarily argue that the Initiative should not be placed on the ballot          because it is unclear whether, if passed, the amendment would apply retroactively            and what effect, if any, the amendment would have on gambling that is currently                legal in Florida—including gambling that was previously authorized by general law           rather than by citizens’ initiative. However, as the sponsor points out, the                             opponents’ arguments concern the ambiguous legal effect of the amendment’s text             rather than the clarity of the ballot title and summary.” (Florida Supreme Court                   SC16-778, SC16-871)

Thus, the Florida Supreme Court specifically stated that the Amendment has “an ambiguous legal effect” and declined to rule whether or not the amendment is retroactive. If they haven’t determined if it’s retroactive, and say it’s ambiguous , how can voters know what it will do?

The wording of Amendment Three states that “Florida Voters shall have the exclusive right to decide whether to authorize casino gambling in the State of Florida.” What does that mean? Slot machines at Pari-Mutuels in Miami-Dade and Broward Counties are authorized by the Florida Constitution. Would it require a new Constitutional amendment to authorize it in different Counties, or at locations other than Pari-Mutuels? The Florida Lottery has certain types of games. Would a new Constitutional Amendment be required to change the tickets, add locations, or sell the tickets in a new style? Could the Florida Lottery use its existing authority to add keno? Would “skill-based gaming” be permitted as a variation on slot machines, or would they require a new constitutional amendment? Can slot machine manufacturers even bring out new styles or themes of slot machines? There are far more questions than answers.

If Amendment Three is construed broadly, so as to require an initiative for any new types of gambling in Florida, I believe that would eventually bring gambling at Florida’s pari-mutuels to an end. A few decades ago, slot machines were electromechanical. Today they are electronic, and video poker, video blackjack, etc. have been determined to be slot machines because they contain random number generators. I can’t predict what new types of gambling will occur in the decades to come, but I do know that there will be new types of gambling, and if the Seminoles and/or the rest of the U.S. can keep up, but the Florida pari-mutuels and Florida Lottery can’t, then the pari-mutuels and Lottery will fall by the wayside. Would any significant number of people gamble today at a quasi-casino that only had electromechanical games?

Amendment Three could be construed more narrowly and be interpreted as saying that this would only prevent new people from entering legal gambling in Florida. It could be interpreted as saying that because Florida’s current Constitution specifically permits casino gambling at pari-mutuels and specifically permits the Lottery, that casino gambling is already permitted at those locations (maybe just in Miami Dade and Broward, maybe not). Therefore, while no other new operators can be permitted to operate places where casino gambling as defined above occurs, any type of casino gambling would be permitted at the current locations authorized in Florida’s Constitution. It is impossible to tell at this time what the Amendment actually does.

Also, the wording of the amendment seems perhaps intentionally confusing. As a County Commissioner in Broward County, Florida, and a former State Senator, I am frequently asked questions about the proposed amendments. Broward has generally been supportive of casino gambling. Many people seem to be supporting this amendment because they are supportive of expanded gambling in Florida, frustrated with the inability of the Florida Legislature to expand this gambling, and therefore believe that passing this will give more local control, enabling the voters of Broward to pass expanded gambling.

The summary of the Amendment says that “Florida voters shall have the exclusive right to decide whether to authorize casino gambling”, but unless you follow the cross-reference to Article XI, section 3 of the Florida Constitution, the summary never explains whether the vote is a local vote or a Statewide vote. For example, the Platform Subcommittee of the Broward Democratic Party voted to support Amendment Three, because “#Homerule. Gives citizens the right to decide on casinos being built in their cities, instead of Tallahassee”. That is almost exactly the opposite of what the Amendment does. When I explain that Amendment Three requires a statewide petition drive, followed by a statewide vote (not a local vote) and passage by 60%, Broward voters seem horrified, and then oppose it. Please note that the Supreme Court ruling permitting the existing wording was approved by a vote of 4-2. Two Supreme Court Justices ruled that the Ballot Title and Summary were misleading.

In order to begin the initiative required by Amendment Three, it would require signatures from 8 percent of the voters in each of ½ of the state’s Congressional districts, and 8% of the total voters statewide, based on the number of votes cast in the last Presidential election. This is an amazingly high bar, and normally requires an extremely high expenditure of funds for paid petition gatherers. The Supreme Court of Florida would have to approve the wording of the proposed Petition. If all of this occurs, the proposed initiative would need 60% of the votes cast in order to pass. It is worth noting that many experts believe that Amendment Three will pass despite these obstacles. As of the date that I write this, it is estimated that the supporters of Amendment Three have raised over $27 million dollars, without any well-funded opposition thus far.

It seems quite clear that if Amendment Three does pass, it would be extremely difficult and expensive to try and rewrite the Constitution again to undo or amend this language to permit additional types of “casino gambling” in Florida. It is clear that an investment of tens of millions of dollars would be required to attempt to change the gambling laws, with no guarantee of success. Few if any companies would be willing to make that commitment. It may make sense for the Seminole Tribe to invest over ten million dollars because if Amendment Three passes, they believe that they would have a monopoly on all new types of gambling on Florida, including Sports Betting. It would make far less economic sense for any one company, which would be one of many companies engaging in gambling in Florida, to put up similar dollars without the same exclusivity that the Seminoles (and potentially the Miccosukees) would enjoy.

Finally, one of the biggest questions remaining is whether or not the Seminole Tribe of Florida may suffer from the law of Unintended Consequences. The Seminole Tribe clearly intended Amendment Three to not apply to Seminole Gambling. The wording of the Amendment states “In addition, nothing herein shall be construed to limit the ability of the State to negotiate gaming compacts pursuant to the Federal Indian Gaming Regulatory Act…”(emphasis added) However, because of the wording that is used in the Amendment (and in a twist that only Lawyers can love), this may not be sufficient.

On November 14, 2007, and against my advice, Governor Charlie Crist signed a “Compact” with the Seminole Tribe of Florida. Former Governor Crist is a close friend, and I warned him in advance that the Governor does not have the authority to enter into a compact under the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act (IGRA). The Governor has the authority to negotiate a compact, but he does not have the authority to execute the compact without Legislative approval. When Crist signed the Compact, he was sued five days later by the Florida House of Representatives. The Florida Supreme Court decided this issue in Florida House of Representatives v. The Honorable Charles J. Crist, Jr., (999 So. 2d 601). The Court chose not to take up the general question of whether the Governor has the authority to enter into a Compact with Florida Indian tribes under any circumstances without Legislative approval, although they cited to several other State and Federal decisions, and in each cited case, the Governor was ruled not to have such authority. Following judicial principles of deciding cases on narrow grounds when possible, the Supreme Court ruled that it would violate the Constitutional Separation of Powers for the Governor to enter into a compact with the Indian Tribes when the compact gives the Indians a type of gambling otherwise illegal in Florida. The Court stated at page 613:

“The House claims that the Compact violates the separation of powers on a number             of grounds.8 We find one of them dispositive. The Compact permits the Tribe to                   conduct certain Class III gaming that is prohibited under Florida law. Therefore, the           Compact violates the state’s public policy about the types of gambling that should               be  allowed. We hold that, whatever the Governor’s authority to execute compacts,             it  does not extend so far. The Governor does not have authority to agree to legalize           in some parts of the state, or for some persons, conduct that is otherwise illegal                   throughout the state.”

Crist negotiated a Compact with the Seminoles, but it required Legislative approval or ratification. The wording of Amendment Three only exempts negotiation of a Compact from Amendment Three. Of course, the New Governor of Florida will be able to negotiate a compact with the Seminole or Miccosukee tribes, as Governor Crist did. However, there is nothing in the language of Amendment Three that appears to exempt Legislative approval or ratification from Amendment Three. I believe that it would have been far clearer if Amendment Three said ““In addition, nothing herein shall be construed to limit the ability of the State to negotiate and ratify gaming compacts pursuant to the Federal Indian Gaming Regulatory Act…”(emphasis added). The word ratification is missing from Amendment Three. I know that the Seminoles feel that the wording of Amendment Three is sufficient to cover both negotiations and ratification. I know that other Lawyers who I respect have a different opinion. I offer no conclusion here, but I believe that this is another ambiguity which may need to be decided by the Florida Supreme Court, if Amendment Three passes by the required 60% vote.