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Is Florida gambling deal on a back burner?

TALLAHASSEE — Though they're raising fees and taxes to fill a budget hole, state lawmakers appear likely to reject at least $355 million from gambling interests because they're struggling to find common ground.

The only major agreement so far: backtrack on Gov. Charlie Crist's call to earmark any gaming proceeds for schools.

Instead, the Senate president and House speaker privately agreed this week that any money from a gambling deal will go into savings — a sign insiders interpret to mean lawmakers are prepared to finish the legislative session without an agreement on gambling expansion in Florida.

"It's going to be a very, very hard lift," said Senate President Jeff Atwater late Wednesday. "In the end, the state could press on without closure at this moment."

Separating the gaming money from education divorces the issue from the must-pass state budget. And that makes gambling proposals more likely to die in the antigaming Florida House.

"If we can't agree, it doesn't blow up the budget," said Rep. Bill Galvano, a Bradenton Republican and vice chair of the negotiating committee.

Also, if the gambling cash is no longer tied to school funding, it is easier for gambling opponents to vote against the measure.

Crist has worked hard to link gambling to education. He told reporters at a Miami school last week that gambling could "put more money into education."

He raised the point again Wednesday, pledging support for a new gambling permit to allow the reopening of Hialeah Park race track, an issue pushed by Hialeah Republican Rep. Steve Bovo. The mere news of the race track reopening brought 4,800 people to the park seeking employment, Bovo said.

"We'll work hard on Hialeah," Crist said. "I promise."

But Crist's work on the Seminole gambling deal has yielded mixed results. Last week, Crist joined with the Seminole Tribe to offer a plan to provide $1.1 billion in cash over two years, and at least another $1.5 billion over 23 years. Legislators rejected it immediately.

Asked about his concerns that the gaming money will no longer supplement education, Crist said he just wanted to make sure Florida gets a share of gambling money if possible.

"I try to stay out of the weeds on those kind of things," Crist said. "I just want to get the big picture done."

Crist's original plan — to give the tribe Las Vegas-style slot machines, blackjack and other banked card games in return for at least $100 million a year for 25 years — was invalidated by the courts last year because banked card games are illegal in Florida.

But after months of negotiations, the House and Senate remain widely divided on how to approach the Seminole gambling agreement while also considering appeals by race tracks and jai alai frontons around the state for more gambling options to better compete with the tribe's growing gaming empire.

Without the gambling issue as a sticking point, negotiations on the more than $65 billion budget sped along Wednesday. The budget raises $930 million in cigarette taxes, $800 million in other fees and taxes and raids trust funds to boost reserves to $1.7 billion. The reserves will decrease if there's no gaming deal.

The House wants to raise a total of $355 million by giving the Seminole Tribe the exclusive operation of slot machines outside of Miami-Dade and Broward counties. The House proposal would halt blackjack and other house-banked card games and would give parimutuels outside South Florida expanded pot limits on poker.

The House also would revive the now-shuttered Hialeah track by allowing it to run quarter horse races and eventually thoroughbred racing. Quarter horse racing permit holders would also be able to operate card rooms.

The Senate would raise $505 million by expanding gambling in every area of the state.

The Seminoles would get craps and roulette. South Florida tracks would get blackjack, and parimutuels elsewhere would get bingo-style slot machines.

Both chambers have agreed to give the parimutuel industry a 15 percent tax break.

Marc Caputo can be reached at mcaputo@ MiamiHerald.com.

Watch Howard Troxler and Dan Ruth discuss the issues before the Florida Legislature.

Is Florida gambling deal on a back burner? 04/29/09 [Last modified: Monday, May 4, 2009 3:23pm]
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