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From the staff of the Tampa Bay Times

Budget slashes compulsive gambling funds as it helps dog tracks

As Florida legislators prepare to pass bills to let greyhound tracks stop racing dogs and start installing slot-machines look alikes, they also slashed $1 million from compulsive gambling prevention in their budget.

The $68 billion budget includes $400,000 sought by the gambling industry to fund a study on the impact of bringing Las Vegas casino resorts to Florida.

“It is the wrong message to send when social services are being cut and people are suffering,’’ said Bill Bunkley, legislative affairs director for the Florida Baptist Convention. “Whether it’s intentional or not, there is a definite statement being made about the expansion of gambling.”

Supporters of the bill say the changes will strengthen Florida’s existing pari-mutuels, especially as greyhound racing is losing popularity as players seek out poker rooms and other gambling options. Under the legislation attached to a budget conforming bill, pari-mutuels in cities or counties that authorize coin-operated amusement machines can install the machines, which can be configured to look like slot machines. The tax rate on those machines would be 1 percent.

It is the annual gambling turf battle that emerges every year in the final days of the legislative session. But with two days to go, there are already clear winners and losers.

The loser: the Florida Council on Compulsive Gambling.

The non-profit organization trains workers at the six casinos in Miami-Dade and Broward to learn how to identify problem gamblers. The organization operates the compulsive gambling hotline, conducts public awareness and prevention programs on problem gambling and distributes contracts with treatment agencies.

Although the state requires the Miami-Dade and Broward racinos to each pay the state $250,000 a year to fund compulsive gambling prevention, the state is using only $264,000 of the total $1.5 million to pay for the program, said Pat Fowler, executive director of the agency. The remaining money has been skimmed off by lawmakers to use in the remaining parts of the budget.

“The writing is on the wall,’’ said Fowler. “At the same time they are expanding gambling, our funds are being cut substantially.”

The agency also received money from the Florida Lottery to pay for gambling prevention programs but, rather than use the $1.19 million set aside, the Legislature gives the program $800,000, she said.

By contrast, the winners in the gambling battle are Las Vegas developers such as Sands and Wynn resorts and Florida's dog tracks. The developers are prepared to invest heavily to bring casino resorts to the state. 

Dog tracks would be allowed to do away with the requirement for live racing if they want to operate card rooms and, under the Senate version of the bill, would give the tracks a gradual reduction of tax breaks over five years as they phase out racing.

In secret budget negotiations over the weekend, legislators agreed to include language that authorizes a $400,000 to study "revenues derived, the expenses incurred and the potential benefit for Florida from destination resorts and horse racing."

Destination resorts is another name for resort-style casinos that the Las Vegas casino operators want to bring to Florida. The concept was the content of a bill that was heard in the House and the Senate but which failed to pass. House sponsor, Rep. Erik Fresen, said he hopes the study will help pave the way for a bill next year.

"We hope a $400,000 study will result in the impetus I need to pass this that will result in tens of millions of dollars to the state in the future,'' said Fresen, R-Miami.

Senate budget chief J.D. Alexander, R-Lake Wales, agreed that the measure was also important to Senate leaders. "Some think it would have a very positive impact on the state and without a definitive study on it, we won't know,'' he said.

Sen. John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, and a former lobbyist for the Jacksonville greyhound track disputes the claims by opponents that allowing dog tracks to install slot-like machines is an expansion of gambling.

“I’m not sure that is truly an expansion of gambling,’’ he said. “As long as it’s confined to their existing licenses, I don’t think it’s any different than the Lottery expanding a new game or providing a new game.”

He said he had no opinion on the elimination of the money from the compulsive gambling agency but opposes bringing casino resorts to Florida. “I don’t know why that money is there,’’ he said. “I’m not involved in the budget.”

[Last modified: Wednesday, May 4, 2011 9:10pm]


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