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House odds long on Senate's video lottery legislation

Dennis Jones, the gray eminence of the Florida Senate from Pinellas County, knows the importance of persistence in the Legislature.

The 66-year-old chiropractor from Seminole began walking the halls of the Capitol in 1978 and, except for a brief two-year hiatus, has been there ever since. Through the years, he has been an advocate of a stricter seat belt enforcement law, which has still not passed, and he championed a new chiropractic school at Florida State University, which never came to be.

Now Jones is pushing another favorite cause: More gambling as a way to ease Florida out of its fiscal predicament.

Jones persuaded the Senate Thursday to pass a bill that would allow 20 race tracks and jai-alai frontons in Florida to offer bingo-style gambling devices known as video lottery terminals. That includes every parimutuel operator outside Miami-Dade and Broward, where voters have already approved more lucrative Las Vegas-style slots.

Each track could run 2,000 machines for up to 18 hours a day, and would have to pay the state a $3-million annual licensing fee.

Jones calls racetrack operators "good corporate citizens" and video slots a "win-win" for Florida, because all that gambling would be the "salvation" of a struggling industry and would funnel up to $500-million more a year into state coffers for education.

"This is a time that has come," Jones said on the Senate floor, and most colleagues agreed. By a 27 to 11 vote, they passed his bill (SB 1380).

There was no discussion about the policy implications of Florida increasing reliance on gambling to pay its teachers and buy books. Only one senator from Tampa Bay, Republican Ronda Storms of Brandon, voted no.

"This is exactly what our constituents have feared," Storms said. "It's like cancer. It creeps everywhere, and you have an endless forward march of gambling."

It's true, those voter-approved slots in South Florida are the proverbial camel's nose under the tent. But Jones argues that people will find a way to gamble, be it Vegas, Atlantic City, Biloxi or the Internet.

Racetrack lobbyists have been pushing video lottery terminals for years to no avail, and now they have a new argument: Those South Florida slot machines are unfair competition. But it still looks like a long shot.

"It's going to take divine intervention from a higher source than mere lobbyists to make it happen," says Brian Ballard, a lobbyist for a West Palm Beach dog track. "We're keeping hope alive."

Jones also has a new argument. He's betting that the steady deterioration of the economy and its negative impact on the state budget will reshuffle the political deck enough so that his colleagues will put aside any moral qualms and vote for more gambling rather than hurt schools.

But Jones is likely to be thwarted once again by the House, whose leaders strongly oppose new gambling on both moral and fiscal grounds.

"We're not going to pass a video lottery bill in the Florida House," Speaker Marco Rubio told reporters this week.

Budget shortfall or no, it's unwise in this case to bet against the House. Any takers?

Steve Bousquet can be reached at bousquet@sptimes.com or (850) 224-7263.

House odds long on Senate's video lottery legislation 03/14/08 [Last modified: Friday, March 14, 2008 10:40pm]
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