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Florida lawmakers poised to expand gambling, cut compulsive gambling aid

TALLAHASSEE — As Florida legislators prepared to pass bills to let greyhound tracks stop racing dogs and start installing slot-machine 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.

Florida lawmakers rejected a push to bring Las Vegas casinos to the state this session, but they are poised to let Florida's existing parimutuels and dog tracks expand their poker rooms and install coin-operated machines that look like slot machines.

Gambling opponents don't like the proposals, but since the measure was tucked into the budget and never got a hearing, they say they haven't had a chance to complain. "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 say the changes will strengthen Florida's existing parimutuels, especially as greyhound racing loses popularity. Under the legislation, which is attached to a budget conforming bill, parimutuels 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 would be 1 percent.

This is part of 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.

Although the state requires the Miami-Dade and Broward dog tracks/casinos 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 remaining parts of the budget.

"The writing is on the wall," Fowler said. "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 want to invest to bring casino resorts to Florida. Dog tracks would be allowed to do away with the requirement for live racing if they want to operate card rooms, and 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 "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 failed to pass. The House sponsor, Rep. Erik Fresen, said he hopes the study will help pave the way for a bill next year.

Senate budget chief J.D. Alexander, R-Lake Wales, agreed that the measure was 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.

Mary Ellen Klas can be reached at meklas@miamiherald.com.

Florida lawmakers poised to expand gambling, cut compulsive gambling aid 05/04/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, May 4, 2011 10:29pm]
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