Florida House weighs in on gambling debate with last-minute bills

Published March 4, 2014

TALLAHASSEE — The Florida House weighed into the gambling debate on Monday and proposed a bill to overhaul the state's gambling laws, putting regulation of race tracks, slot machines and poker rooms under a Gaming Control Commission, similar to those in Nevada, New Jersey and other large gaming states.

Unlike a similar Senate plan, which overhauls regulation and authorizes new casino resorts in Miami Dade and Broward counties, the House plan leaves the decision to introduce mega-casinos to Florida to Gov. Rick Scott.

The governor can approve or reject the casinos when he negotiates a new gaming compact with the Seminole Tribe of Florida. The governor has until July 2015 to re-negotiate a portion of the 20-year gaming compact that applies to the tribe's exclusive right to operate table games such as black jack, chemin de fer and baccarat at its South Florida casinos.

The House also drafted a constitutional amendment that would require voters to approve any expansion of gambling that does not get approved by legislators this year. The measure could close the door to any future expansion of gambling in the state because 60 percent of voters statewide would have to approve of any new venture. That condition offers a measure of economic security to those in business now, and attempts to win the support of gambling opponents who see it as a permanent limit on expanded gambling.

The Senate has also proposed a constitutional amendment that give voters the authority to restrict future games, but the House proposal is more restrictive.

The major thrust of the House proposals — which were still being finalized late Monday — follows the initiative announced last week by the Florida Senate to revamp the way gambling is regulated in Florida.

The primary House bill, which was filed by Rep. Rob Schenck, R-Spring Hill, the head of the House Gaming Committee, creates a Gaming Control Commission that would regulate all gaming in the state except the lottery. It is similar to the Senate plan to create a state Gaming Control Board.

Unlike the Senate gaming board, which includes five members appointed by the governor, the House gaming commission would be comprised of five members appointed by the governor from a list of candidates chosen by a legislatively-controlled nominated commission.

The move by the House came on the last day for members to file individual bills and as the Senate launched its debate over bringing two casino resorts to South Florida.

The Senate Gaming Committee discussed, but didn't vote on its three proposals to allow Las Vegas' casino giants move into the state under the regulation of the new state gaming control agency.

"We're getting ready to roll the dice,'' said Sen. Garrett Richter, R-Naples, chairman of the Senate Gaming Committee, as he began his summary of the package of bills.

The industry-friendly committee is the first stop in the Senate, where gambling interests have traditionally had a warmer welcome than in the House. The Senate bill, for example, rewards three of the largest donors to legislative political committees in the state: Genting/Resorts World, which has spent more than $1.2 million on legislators this election cycle, Las Vegas Sands and the Seminole Tribe.

In addition to allowing two so-called "destination resort" casinos, one each in Miami Dade and Broward, the Senate's SPB 7052 completely reorganizes the regulation of the state's current gaming options by transferring the authority of gambling to a newly-created state agency.

The bill does not authorize the expansion of slot machines to six counties outside of Miami Dade and Broward that have passed a local referendum, Richter said, but instead clarifies an attorney general's opinion that rejected local referendums as a viable way to expand slot machines in Florida.

Richter said he choose not to give those regions slot machines because it would end the state's revenue-sharing compact with the Seminole Tribe. The current agreement, which extends through 2030, requires the tribe to pay revenues to the state as long as it has the exclusive right to operate slot machines outside of Miami Dade and Broward.

Sen. Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, an opponent of the gambling expansion, said the bill is designed to imply that it will attract tourists outside of Florida by including convention centers, entertainment and tourism options in addition to casinos without including a definition of "destination resort."

He said the testimony shows that 80 percent of the business from the new casinos will come from local residents.

Sen. John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, said he doubts the additional casinos will add to the economy.

Richter responded that he doesn't consider the addition of two casinos "an expansion of gambling" but an "expansion of commerce." He also noted that if the Senate bill passes, the state is "at least five years away from the first destination casino opening its doors."

Sen. Jack Latvala, R-St. Petersburg, said that with gambling already widespread in Florida the goal should be to strengthen the current options in a way that allows them to create more jobs. He pointed to the resurgence of Hialeah Race Course, which now races quarterhorses and used slot machines to finance its resurgence.

"To me the decision here is not whether we are going to expand gambling. The decision here is whether we are going to protect a monopoly that a sovereign nation has,'' Latvala said, referring to the Seminole Tribe and the casinos it operates throughout the state.

The Senate bill includes:

• Creating a Joint Legislative Gaming Control Oversight Committee comprised of seven senators and seven house members that have oversight over all gambling operations, including the Department of the Lottery. The committee would meet quarterly and oversee anything including sales and advertising and may make written recommendations if it determines additional legislation is warranted.

• Requiring the new casinos to devote no more than 10 percent of its real estate footprint to gaming and casino operators to spend $2 billion in new money on the investment, not including the real estate purchase.

• Requiring applicants for the new casino licenses to pay a refundable $125 million fee and a $1 million investigation fee. They would also be required to spend $250,000 a year on preventing compulsive gambling.

• Taxing the new casinos at a rate of 35 percent on revenues.