TALLAHASSEE — No legislator is immune when it comes to the influence of the gambling industry in Florida.
All 160 members of the Florida Legislature have either accepted a campaign check from the industry or benefited from its contributions to their parties. In the 2006-08 election cycle alone, horse and dog tracks, jai alai frontons and the Seminole Indian Tribe gave nearly $5 million to legislators and political parties — more than double the $2.2 million gambling interests contributed to lawmakers in the previous election.
Some legislators have worked closely with the industry or have allies who do. And in every corner of the state, ailing parimutuels are promising something lawmakers are hungry for in this perilous economy: new jobs, if legislators give them new games.
"We have a choice," said Sen. Dennis Jones, a Seminole Republican who heads the Senate committee that oversees gambling regulation. "We can either help out an industry that has been a good corporate citizen, produced jobs and paid taxes for decades, and use the revenue for education, or we can raise property taxes to pay for education. I know what's going to be my vote."
In the coming weeks, lawmakers will decide between two very different proposals to change the face of gambling at Florida's tracks, frontons and Indian casinos, a decision potentially worth millions of dollars.
The House proposal would force the Seminoles — current kings of the gambling scene in Florida — to scale back the gambling they won under an agreement signed in 2007 by Gov. Charlie Crist. They would have to get rid of their blackjack tables, but they would be allowed to keep their slot machines.
The Senate plan, sponsored by Jones, would allow the Seminoles full casinos at seven locations, allowing them to expand their current offerings of slot machines and blackjack to include roulette, craps and unlimited poker pots. Every parimutuel in the state would be allowed to offer new forms of gambling.
Gambling opponents say lawmakers should reject all forms of gambling. They interpret any compromise between the two proposals as a sign of gambling's influence.
"The gambling lobby needs to be soundly told that our representative government is not for sale," said Dennis Baxley, a former state representative from Ocala who now represents the Christian Coalition of Florida.
His organization wants lawmakers to let the parimutuel industry die a natural death.
"We have to realize some industries change," Baxley said. "There's no buggymakers any more. There may not be any parimutuels after a while."
But the industry's deep roots in Florida make it difficult for lawmakers to turn their backs on horse and dog tracks in their communities. In many cases, they are among the oldest operating businesses in town.
From Monticello's Jefferson County Greyhound track in the Panhandle to Miami Jai Alai, "They are part of the historic framework of the state of Florida," said Steve Geller, a former Hallandale Beach state senator.
The industry's reach is widespread in Florida because it has operators in every region. Also, there are more horse and dog tracks than in any other state and the only jai alai games left in the nation.
In Tampa, legislators are sympathetic to the two dog tracks and a horse track that compete with the Seminole's Hard Rock casino.
In Central Florida, incoming House Speaker Dean Cannon has taken a different stand, vowing to stop the expansion of gambling at Seminole County Greyhound track and jai alai — echoing the position of the powerful Disney Entertainment.
"The House has been pretty clear. We have a philosophical opposition to anything that expands gambling," said Cannon, R-Orlando.
Former Republican House Speaker John Thrasher, who now lobbies for the Jacksonville greyhound tracks, believes the middle ground may be a plan to carve out Cannon's Central Florida region but expand gambling elsewhere.
Gov. Charlie Crist on Monday echoed the revenue theme after speaking with House Speaker Larry Cretul and Senate President Jeff Atwater.
"I am more encouraged we might get gaming and some significant additional revenue out of the (Sen. Dennis) Jones bill," Crist said. "Maybe as much as $700 (million) to $1 billion. There are glimmers of hope."
Meanwhile, the industry has seeded the pathway for slots at racetracks and jai alai frontons with generous contributions. Mardi Gras Racetrack and Casino in Hallandale Beach, owned by Hartman and Tyner of Michigan, has made the heftiest political contributions with $2.1 million from 2006 to 2008.
Company president Dan Adkins says the contributions are just part of doing business.
"I think it's a good, responsible thing to do," Adkins said. "It's no different than if you ran a railroad or ran a hospital."
Next-highest political contributor: the Seminole Tribe, with its gambling agreement at stake. It contributed $643,000 from 2006 to 2008, including $545,000 to the Republican Party and $75,000 to the Democrats.
Legislators come to the debate with varying allegiances. Here's a sampling:
• Sen. Jeff Atwater, a North Palm Beach Republican and Senate president, received $50,000 in gambling contributions for his political committee.
• Sen. Ken Pruitt, a Port St. Lucie Republican, had hoped to get Class II slot machines enacted when he was Senate president but could not overcome House opposition.
• Sen. Jim King, a Jacksonville Republican, has been a longtime advocate of expanded gambling. He is an ally of the Seminole Tribe as well as the Jacksonville dog tracks. His political committee received $10,000 in gambling money.
• Sen. Mike Haridopolos, a Melbourne Republican, is a fiscal conservative who supports expanded gambling. His political committee received $25,000 in gambling money.
• Rep. Ellyn Bodganoff, a Fort Lauderdale Republican who heads the Finance and Tax Committee, supports expanded gambling within an existing facility. Her political committee received $2,000 from the gaming industry.