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From the staff of the Tampa Bay Times

Ambitious gaming bills get preview today



Two legislative committees today will try to do what has been an impossible for the last five years: pass a gambling bill that expands casino gambling, starts to remove the life support for the dying parimutuel industry and does it in a way that doesn't cut revenues to the state.

The two packages of gambling bills, up today in the House Regulatory Affairs Committee and the Senate Regulated Industries Committee, are being done in tandem with bills that ratify the bulk of the governor's compact with the Seminole Tribe, guaranteeing the state $3 billion in revenue over 7 years.

The proposals have been months in the making, with Rep. Jose Felix Diaz, R-Miami, taking the lead in the House and Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, the point person in the Senate. Each as spent enormous chunks of time in the past six months invested in trying to appease the loud and disparate factions who fight with gladiator-like ferocity in Florida’s gaming arena.

The result is a series of proposals that satiate many but satisfy no one -- except the Seminole Tribe. The nation’s most profitable tribe gets its compact ratified and a seven-year license to have a monopoly on casino games of craps, roulette and black jack at its seven casinos while it builds an entertainment empire, in time to attract a new generation of hipsters who have little interest in slot machines.

Both proposals allow for some expansion, some contraction and some outright novelties that the sponsors hopes will serve as a middle ground for everyone.

The pari-mutuels in Miami-Dade and Broward pari-mutuels would get their long-shot tax reduction on their slots operations. The Senate would allow for a 10 percent drop from the current 35 percent tax rate while the House would allow a 5 percent tax reduction at first with up to another 5 percent for pari-mutuels that agree to reduce the number of slot machines at their facilities.

But the problem with they way the state has assembled its gaming laws, with every concession to one part of the industry, another sees doom. Like a House of Cards, the removal of one piece could topple the whole arrangement.

One example of this is the controversial notion of decoupling -- the idea that horse and dog tracks and jai alai frontons operate a fixed number of races in order to maintain their poker permits and, for some, slot machines.

Greyhound tracks would also be allowed to decouple, under both House and Senate bills, an idea that appears to have majority support from most lawmakers, but horse tracks would have only “partial decoupling” under the House plan, an idea that is strenuously opposed by horse breeders, owners and trainers.

The United Florida Horsemen, representing owners, breeders and trainers, have warned that decoupling horses "would essentially make welfare queens out of horsemen by creating an artificial set-aside market" and would wipe out “any semblance of free enterprise."

To offset that hit to the horsemen, the bill requires a sweetener: a portion of the revenues from the compact would supplement purses for thoroughbred horse races, now running at Gulfstream Racetrack and Tampa Bay Downs.

Beyond this complicated give and take is one element that could truly be the deal breaker: House leaders insist that any gambling expansion allowed in the bills -- from video terminals at dog tracks to offering new slots venues at parimutuel tracks in Palm Beach and Miami -- get local and statewide approval. That idea is a non-starter in the Senate, where the parimutuel industry has long had its strongest clout.

Both the House and Senate committees are filled with both gaming advocates and opponents. Diaz and Bradley are confident they have the votes to pass their plans in their own committees. If they do, it is a very big deal, but also only the first step.

[Last modified: Tuesday, February 9, 2016 10:45am]


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