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Jai alai tax-break bill no sure bet with Chiles

The Legislature on Friday approved a tax break for the state's six jai alai frontons that could keep jai alai in Tampa on a seasonal basis beginning late in December.

Plans to end jai alai June 29 in Tampa were announced earlier this year because of sagging revenues operators blame in part on the state's tax structure.

The bill approved Friday limits parimutuel taxes to jai alai earnings, as opposed to revenues. Under the current tax structure, which the industry dubbed unfair and outdated, frontons paid more than $7-million in parimutuel taxes last year while losing about $3-million in operating expenses.

"Who can afford to pay more in taxes than he earns?" asked Steve Snyder, president of Dania Jai-Alai.

Four frontons have closed since 1987, and the Tampa fronton is scheduled to end live jai alai games for good June 29.

Shane Best, the marketing director for Tampa Jai Alai, said that if Gov. Lawton Chiles does not veto the legislation, live jai alai will resume in Tampa a couple days after Christmas this year and operate for a six- or seven-month season.

"There is some celebration but it is somewhat muted," Best said Friday night. He said there are indications the governor will veto the legislation.

If so, the Tampa fronton will stay open for off-site betting on dogs and other parimutuels, but will be forced to end an institution that's been in Tampa since 1953.

The Senate voted 34-3 for the bill and sent it to Chiles for his signature. The House had passed it earlier.

The legislation could lead to the reopening of Palm Beach Jai-Alai in West Palm Beach, which closed in 1994, and could allow smaller, seasonal frontons such as the one in Fort Pierce to expand to a year-round schedule.

"It's something that will protect jobs, help economic development and get this industry back on track," said Sen. Ron Silver, D-North Miami Beach. "This bill is designed to help an industry that has been very good to the state of Florida."

The state's parimutuel tax structure, created in 1933, taxes 5.1 percent of jai alai's gross revenues. In 1996, the Legislature cut the rate to 4.25 percent, but that reduction is scheduled to expire in July.

Supporters say the industry employs more than 1,500 people and contributes about $200-million a year to Florida's economy.

Chiles has indicated that he is not comfortable with the bill, largely because jai alai received a tax break two years ago, said Glenn Jones, vice president of the state chapter of the International Jai Alai Players Association.

"We're going to have to put on our full-court press," Jones said. "If this bill doesn't become law, these guys are going to close. It's not a threat. It's a reality."