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Gambling expansion bill zips through Senate committee

TALLAHASSEE — In less than an hour, the Senate Regulated Industries Committee on Wednesday authorized an expansion of gambling in Florida, that would give the Seminoles full-scale casinos with roulette wheels and craps tables while offering 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 state would reap $1 billion a year in new revenue.

Committee members did not debate before unanimously approving the proposal to give the state's 25 parimutuel facilities new gaming options. On the plan to give the Seminole Tribe full-fledged casinos, only West Palm Beach Democrat Dave Aronberg voted no.

The two proposals, which are designed to move through the process in tandem, were so loaded with changes long-sought by the state's gambling industry that one lobbyist called it a Christmas tree bill.

Included is a plan to lower the legal gambling age from 21 to 18, give parimutuels outside of Miami-Dade and Broward counties the option to run electronic slot machines that pit players against each other and allow parimutuels to offer historic racing games in which people bet on the outcomes of past, unidentified horse races.

Two Tampa Bay are parimutuels — Derby Lane in St. Petersburg and Tampa Bay Downs in Oldsmar — could offer the electronic bingo and "instant racing" games if the bills become law.

The new games would help Derby Lanes compete against the Tampa Seminole Hard Rock Casino, said spokeswoman Vera Filipelli. "Being able to introduce those would be a big step," she said.

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.

The Senate bill has already won the support of Crist, who said Tuesday that he was "open to any idea that will help us get the compact. … We need the money."

Times staff writer Steve Huettel contributed to this report. Mary Ellen Klas can be reached at meklas@MiamiHerald.com.

Gambling expansion bill zips through Senate committee 03/25/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, March 25, 2009 11:05pm]
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