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  1. Florida Politics

Florida House committee advances bill to expand casino games

Gov. Rick Scott, center, talks with James Allen, CEO of Seminole Gaming, at the tribe's headquarters in Hollywood earlier this month. Lawmakers are debating whether to approve a gaming compact signed by Scott and the tribe along with other possible changes to state gambling laws. [ASSOCIATED PRESS]
Gov. Rick Scott, center, talks with James Allen, CEO of Seminole Gaming, at the tribe's headquarters in Hollywood earlier this month. Lawmakers are debating whether to approve a gaming compact signed by Scott and the tribe along with other possible changes to state gambling laws. [ASSOCIATED PRESS]
Published Feb. 10, 2016

TALLAHASSEE — Florida lawmakers made uneven progress on ambitious plans to rewrite the state's gambling laws Tuesday as a House committee did what has been virtually impossible for the conservative chamber to do in the last decade: pass a bill that expands gambling in Florida.

At the same time, though, the more gaming-friendly Senate put the brakes on its plan.

In the House, the Regulatory Affairs Committee gave the nod to one bill — ratifying the agreement between Gov. Rick Scott and the Seminole Tribe to expand casino games on their reservations — and also approved a companion measure. The measure tightens loopholes in the state's gambling laws while adding slots permits in Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties and offering new gaming options outside of South Florida.

Then, to punctuate the message that any future gambling should face very steep hurdles, the committee passed a bill to require that any additional expansion in Florida not already approved in the compact must receive statewide voter approval — through a citizen-led initiative.

"Doing a gaming bill is like putting a queen-size sheet on a king-size bed," joked Rep. Jose Felix Diaz, R-Miami, the sponsor of the bill. "It's impossible to accommodate the interests of every single person. What I tried to do was come up with a fair and balanced bill."

The House's proposals are designed to find the sweet spot to appease the factional gambling industry in the face of the newly-inked agreement with the Seminole Tribe. That agreement, if ratified by lawmakers, promises to bring in $3 billion over seven years starting next year and would help lawmakers to replace the state revenue they will lose if they give the governor his $1 billion tax cut plan.

But as the traditionally gaming-resistant House moved ahead, the Senate — usually considered more gaming-friendly — delayed a vote on its bill for a week.

Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, who had hoped to present his gaming bill in the Senate Regulated Industries Committee on the same day Diaz presented his plan in the House, said his committee needed time to absorb a 40-page amendment by Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart.

Negron's last-minute amendment would allow the six dog and horse tracks outside of Palm Beach County, which have won voter approval to operate slot machines, to go ahead with starting the games. It also attempts to appease the concerns of the Florida horse breeders and owners by using $50 million from the compact to increase racing purses. The Diaz and Bradley bills offer only $10 million.

"Basically we wanted to have some time to digest the amendments that were filed over the last several hours," Bradley told reporters. He added that while his "full intention" is to have the bill up for consideration next week, budget discussions could push any final compact deal to the final week of the legislative session.

The proposals have been months in the making, with Diaz and Bradley working hard to pacify the other gaming competitors in Florida. The result is a group of proposals that offer something for everyone but satisfy no one — except the Seminole Tribe.

The nation's most profitable tribe gets its compact ratified and a seven-year monopoly on casino games of craps, roulette and black jack at its seven casinos while it builds a $1.8 billion entertainment expansion, including a remodeled Seminole Hard Rock Tampa that includes a new, 500-room hotel tower.

Both proposals allow for gambling expansion, but the Senate also offers to buy back some gaming licenses to allow for some reduction in gaming. Both also offer some outright novelties, such as the video racing terminals at parimutuels outside South Florida.

The pari-mutuels in Miami-Dade and Broward would get their long-sought tax reduction on their slots operations in both proposals. The Senate would allow for a 10 percent drop from the current 35 percent tax rate while the House would allow a 5 percent tax reduction and up to another 5 percent for pari-mutuels that agree to reduce the number of slot machines at their facilities.

But with every concession to one part of the industry, another sees doom. One example of this is the controversial notion of decoupling — ending the rule that requires horse and dog tracks and jai alai frontons to operate a certain number of races in order to maintain their poker permits and, for some, slot machines.

Greyhound tracks would be allowed to decouple under both House and Senate bills. Horse tracks would have only "partial decoupling" under the House plan that would allow Hialeah Park Race Track and Pompano Park, as well as Calder Casino, to stop horse racing while retaining their slots license. Both bills increase the purse pool by $10 million, so that the existing thoroughbred races, now running at Tampa Bay Downs and Gulfstream Racetrack, can become more lucrative.

Horse decoupling drew vociferous opposition from horse breeders and owners who argued the idea is a betrayal of the promise the pari-mutuel industry made in 2004 to help win voter support for slot machines.

"The casinos asked us to join them. I feel like the girl with the dowry,'' said Tonya Jurgens, a horse breeder and trainer from Ocala. "Now that they are making big corporate profits they want to kick us to the curb but use our dowry."

Hialeah Mayor Carlos Hernandez, who was in Tallahassee for the annual Dade Days event, said that while his community was happy when the Legislature authorized quarter horse racing at Hialeah Park six years ago along with a slots casino but "quarter horse racing has not been successful."

He said the community would prefer to see the casino invest to build high rises around its racino and "create thousands and thousands of jobs."

The quarter horse industry disputes those claims, noting that the industry has not only expanded in Florida, it is thriving.

"There seems to be a misnomer that the horse racing business is not doing well,'' said Joe Pennacchio, president of the Florida Standardbred Breeders and Owners Association. "The fact is there aren't as many people live at the track but I'm sure the permit holder at Pompano Park will tell you his business is up 30 percent. The revenue is there."

Diaz, who called the bills "a work in progress," warned the committee that while he is willing to compromise, he worries about endangering the whole thing.

"It is a living breathing deal but when you do things to that deal you may require it to be on a ventilator,'' he said.

Contact Mary Ellen Klas at meklas@miamiherald.com. Follow @MaryEllenKlas.

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