Gambling bills get fast-track approval in Senate
Within less than an hour Wednesday, the Senate Regulated Industries Committee authorized $1 billion in expanded gambling in Florida, allowing the governor to negotiate a compact with the Seminole Indians that gives them roulette wheels and craps tables, and gives lighter-fare games to horse and dog tracks around the state.
"Don’t kid yourself. We are a gaming state, so why wouldn’t we want to be the cream of the crop rather than losing citizens going somewhere else?" said Sen. Dennis Jones, the sponsor of the two bills and chairman of the committee.
The committee had no debate before unanimously approving new gaming options for the state's 25 parimutuel facilities. On the plan to give Seminoles full-fledged casinos, only West Palm Beach Democrat Dave Aronberg voted no.
The two proposals, designed to move through the process in tandem, were so loaded with pieces long sought by the state's gambling industry that one lobbyist called it a "Christmas tree bill."
Included in it is a plan to lower the legal gambling age from 21 to 18, give parimutuels outside Miami-Dade and Broward counties the option to run electronic slot machines in which players play against each other, and allow parimutuels to offer historic racing games in which people watch a video of unidentified horse races from the past.
The Senate bill also reduces the tax rate on slot machine gaming from 50 percent to 35 percent and provides that the payout is no less than 85 percent at all facilities.
The state will get "$1 billion in recurring new general revenue, not just this year but every year," Jones said.
Aronberg, however, said he opposed the Seminole bill because it goes too far. "There's a middle ground that can maximize our revenues for the state of Florida and ensure that gambling is not expanded beyond the point of no return. I feel uncomfortable with full casinos in Florida and that's why I voted no."
The Senate bill has already won the support of Gov. Charlie Crist, who said Tuesday that he was "open to any idea that will help us get the compact ... We need the money."
The compact signed by Crist but invalidated by the Florida Supreme Court gave the tribe blackjack and banked card games, as well as Las Vegas-style slot machines, in exchange for $100 million a year in revenue to the state.
Crist had counted on $288 million in revenue from the tribe when he built his recommended budget for the 2009-10 fiscal year. The Senate plan has the potential to increase that amount while allowing the governor and legislators to escape violating their no-new-taxes pledges. But legislative economist Amy Baker has raised doubts about how reliable any expansion of gaming will be in this economic climate.
Here are the major elements of the House and Senate plans:
• The Senate plan gives the Seminole Tribe full-fledged casinos, including roulette, craps, slots, blackjack and other banked card games and poker without betting limits. In return, the tribe would pay $400 million a year in revenue sharing to the state for 25 years, with up to 25 percent more, depending on net win.
• The House gives the tribe slot machines only, with $100 million a year going to the state for 10 years. The compact signed by Crist gave the tribe blackjack and banked card games, as well as Las Vegas-style slot machines, in exchange for $100 million a year in revenue to the state, plus bonuses if the tribe exceeded certain revenue projections.
• The Senate proposal reduces the tax rate on the "racinos" in Miami-Dade and Broward to 35 percent on slot machine revenues, down from the 50 percent they now pay. The House plan does not lower the tax rate.
• The Senate plan gives Miami-Dade and Broward racinos blackjack and other banked card games on top of their Las Vegas-style slot machines. The 18 other parimutuels around the state, including Hialeah Race Track with its new quarterhorse racing, would get electronic bingo -- also known as video lottery terminals. The House plan gives the competitors no additional options. Hialeah, however, would have to run a full schedule of races for two years before getting the games -- the same requirement imposed on all the other race tracks.
Seminole Tribe council member Max Osceola said that while the tribe is grateful that both the House and Senate are moving forward with bills authorizing a compact, he liked the Senate's proposal to give them full casinos. "We've been offering this since 1990," he said. "So we haven't changed our position."