TALLAHASSEE — As Florida's unemployment numbers rise, the decades-old fight between the state's Seminole Tribe and its gambling competitors has come to this: who can promise the most jobs.
The owners of horse tracks, dog tracks and jai alai frontons promised state lawmakers Thursday that if they had been given the same deal as the tribe's Hard Rock casinos, they could produce 23,000 construction jobs and 32,000 direct jobs in Miami-Dade and Broward facilities.
The South Florida Gaming Coalition pleaded with members of the House Select Committee on Indian Compact Review to "level the playing field" and give the parimutuels a lower tax rate to compete with the tribe as well as blackjack and other banked card games the tribe's casinos already offer.
Last week, the tribe offered its own number: 45,000 new jobs.
If the Legislature were to approve the gambling compact the tribe signed with Gov. Charlie Crist, its expanded gambling and entertainment mecca would hire that many people over the next decade, said Seminole Gaming chief executive James Allen. The pact, however, has been struck down by the Florida Supreme Court and needs legislative approval to get out of legal limbo.
This week, the tribe launched a new Web site, jobsforflorida.com, and a 30-second TV spot airing in Tallahassee. Other parts of the state, too, will soon see a public relations push from the Seminoles as they try to convince legislators to sign onto the gambling deal that gave them Las Vegas-style slot machines and the exclusive operation of blackjack and baccarat in Florida, in return for a guaranteed $100 million a year for 25 years.
By contrast, horse breeders, trainers and racetrack lobbyists told lawmakers that because of the tribe's encroachment on the South Florida casino business, the parimutuels have been unable to subsidize horse race purses, reducing the pool of top-line thoroughbreds racing in Florida.
"It's devastating," Marc Dunbar, a lobbyist for Gulfstream Racetrack, told the committee. "Horsemen are leaving. Trainers are leaving, breeding farms are closing."
Legislators were sympathetic.
"It really, really disturbs me that we have ongoing taxpayer businesses that have been established in this state for many, many years and yet we hear from them if we don't do something significant, they're going to die," said Rep. Alan Hays, an Umatilla Republican. "And with that death goes all kinds of jobs, all kinds of revenue, and I don't see the replacement."
Committee Chairman Bill Galvano, a Bradenton Republican, said he didn't expect the Legislature to reduce the 50 percent tax rate on parimutuels because that "politically is something that will be hard to swallow for the members," he said.
But lawmakers will consider other things as the panel prepares recommendations for the Legislature by the start of session on March 3. Among the ideas is a plan to change the way the state defines net income on which their taxes are based, as long as the parimutuels can show they create jobs.
"There may be economic incentives you can give to existing parimutuels," Galvano said.
Mary Ellen Klas can be reached at [email protected] Miami Herald staff writer Michael Vasquez contributed to this report.