TALLAHASSEE — Imagine Florida with slot machines at several dog tracks, intended to lure Georgians to Jacksonville, Alabamans to Pensacola, high rollers to Palm Beach and race fans to Daytona.
That is one of the ideas gaining steam in Tallahassee as gaming promoters plan ways to expand Florida's gambling empire in exchange for closing loopholes that have exploded over the past few years.
The Florida Senate Gaming Committee has scheduled a series of hearings next month to travel to Jacksonville, Pensacola, Lakeland and Coconut Creek to hear from the public, as lawmakers embark on an ambitious rewrite of the state's gambling laws.
"The goal is to reform Florida's gambling laws in a way that will benefit Florida's economy and social welfare for years to come,'' said Sen. Garrett Richter, R-Naples, chairman of the committee.
Legislative leaders have signed a $400,000 contract with Spectrum Gaming Group of New Jersey to assess the economic impact of existing and expanded gambling on communities in Florida. The report, due Oct. 1, will also offer some regulatory options before lawmakers draft the plan. Among the 10 options reviewed by Spectrum, only one would not expand gambling. The others range from allowing two so-called "destination resorts" in South Florida to limited expansion of gambling in certain regions of the state.
The timing of the legislative debate is significant. In 2015, the provisions of the state's agreement with the Seminole Tribe of Florida expire, requiring the state to renew the compact or establish new rules to allow the tribe to operate blackjack and other table games exclusively, in exchange for providing revenue to the state.
The re-opening of the tribal compact, as well as the perception that acceptance of casino games has increased among most Floridians, has made many legislative observers predict that Florida may pass wholesale gambling reforms in the upcoming session.
"It's much different this year than it's ever been before,'' said Al Lawson, a former Democratic legislator from Tallahassee who supports expanding slot machines to North Florida. "Legislators are more open to give consideration to this than before."
Lawson predicted that the Senate hearings "will be packed" with supporters urging lawmakers to expand gambling in North Florida.
"Things have changed,'' he said. "We now load up two buses a week bringing people to casinos in Alabama and Mississippi. Why won't we take advantage of that?"
The first phase of Spectrum's report, which was completed in July, cited a 2013 poll by the American Gaming Association that found that 85 percent of all Americans now view casino gambling as an acceptable activity for themselves and others.
Senate President Don Gaetz and House Speaker Will Weatherford have indicated that they do not support expanded gambling, but many of their supporters believe that they may be open to a gradual expansion in exchange for closing the loopholes that have allowed "flag drop" racing as a pari-mutuel sport and drawn nearly two dozens lawsuits.
"Whatever the House passes will be the bill,'' said Brian Ballard, lobbyist for the Palm Beach Kennel Club, Genting and Donald Trump, noting that the more conservative House will dictate the gambling terms.
Meanwhile, the Senate's decision to hire Spectrum is coming under fire from the Orlando-based group No Casinos, which is supported by Disney and other Orlando-based tourist attractions. The group complains that Spectrum has close ties to the industry, with many gambling companies among its client base, and will not produce an unbiased report. The group launched a television campaign in Tallahassee this week to discredit the Spectrum report.
"You wouldn't want inmates running an asylum, nor burglars guarding a bank vault," the ad says. "So why is the gambling industry writing the official study on expanding gambling in Florida? Because your politicians are paying them to write it."
Richter defends the report, saying it will be chock-full of differing points of view, not just those supported by the gaming industry.
"When we get the report it will be literally like drinking out of a firehose, but we will absolutely not be able to state we don't have enough information to make a decision,'' he said.
As for the decision to conduct public hearings in the Panhandle communities that want gambling expansion, he was non-committal.
"The selection process wasn't scientific,'' Richter said. "These were areas we thought we could get to." The first hearing will be held Oct. 23 from 4-7 p.m. at the north campus of Broward College in Coconut Creek. Subsequent hearings will be held in Lakeland, Pensacola and Jacksonville.
Contact Mary Ellen Klas at meklas@MiamiHerald.com. Follow her on Twitter @MaryEllenKlas.