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Senate bills would expand gambling while adding new regulations

TALLAHASSEE — The Florida Senate on Monday unveiled proposals that would bring casino resorts to Miami-Dade and Broward counties and expand gambling statewide with one new wrinkle: The gaming industry would be subject to new regulations.

In addition to the casino resorts, slot machines would be allowed around the state, dog tracks could race fewer dogs, greyhound injuries would be reported — and all of this could happen without voter approval.

The Senate proposals, contained in three separate bills, are the product of nearly a year of study and more than $400,000 in taxpayer money spent to review the economic and revenue impact of bringing casino resorts to Florida.

But the ideas face steep resistance from House leaders, incoming Senate leader Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, and even the governor, who may not want the issue on his plate in an election year.

"I thought this would be a very good starting line to have the discussion," Sen. Garrett Richter, R-Naples, chairman of the Senate Gaming Committee, told the Times/Herald. "I think the bill is composed of statutes and regulations that have the best interests of Florida in mind."

Richter said the sweeping rewrite is an attempt to "reform the current patchwork of laws into an orderly structure."

He said it is a preliminary plan that will be vetted for weeks when the Legislature begins its two-month session next week.

In addition to licensing two destination casino resorts, the bills also allow for slot machines at dog tracks in Palm Beach and Lee counties and at a rodeo track in Gadsden County.

The measures allow for a reduction in the number of dog races conducted at the state's 13 greyhound tracks and require that track owners and trainers report dog injuries for the first time since the state legalized dog racing 80 years ago.

All of the changes would take effect this year under the plan, but the plan also proposes a constitutional amendment to require voter approval for any additional gambling expansion.

Voters in counties and cities that would host the destination resorts in Miami-Dade and Broward also would have to give their consent.

"It's Christmas in February for out-of-state gambling interests, and their entire wish list can be found in these bills," said John Sowinski, president of No Casinos, an Orlando-based gaming opposition group. "This legislation reeks of gambling interest influence. I have yet to find any major provision that isn't there at the request of somebody in the gambling industry."

Complicating the proposals is the fact that an expansion of gambling in Florida could nullify the state's $230-million-a-year gaming compact with the Seminole Tribe, the owner of the Hard Rock Casinos in Tampa and Hollywood and five other casinos in Florida.

House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, said he will not accept any gambling expansion unless the governor signs off on it and negotiates a new compact.

But while the governor's staff has met with members of the tribe, it has not met with attorney Barry Richard, who would lead negotiations for the tribe.

Senate bills would expand gambling while adding new regulations 02/24/14 [Last modified: Monday, February 24, 2014 10:41pm]

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