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  1. Florida Politics

Seminole Hard Rock Casino can add craps and roulette under new state plan

TALLAHASSEE — After years of gridlock over the state's gambling laws, the Florida House agreed to major concessions Wednesday that include allowing Tampa's Seminole Hard Rock Casino to offer craps and roulette for the first time and a financial boost to Tampa Bay Downs.

The deal, if approved by lawmakers, would greatly expand the Hard Rock — already one of the world's largest casinos. The Interstate 4 complex in 2012 underwent a $75 million expansion of its casino floor that's now the size of five football fields.

If lawmakers approve the plan by the time session is scheduled to end May 5, it's not clear when or if the Seminole Tribe would introduce craps and roulette to a casino floor teeming with more than 5,000 slot machines, 110 table games and 50 poker tables.

"They are always considering what options are out there and doing their best to get ahead of them, but until something is final, it's premature to say there are plans," said Seminole Tribe spokesman Gary Bitner. "They're smart enough to look ahead but smart enough to know things can change."

The House's compromises, made behind closed doors with Senate leaders, alarmed gambling opponents.

"This conference committee process is a prime example why gambling expansion should not be subject to legislative 'sausage making,' as it results in gambling creep," said John Sowinski, president of No Casinos. "It is clear that there needs to be a bright line in the Florida Constitution that gives Florida voters the exclusive right to authorize gambling in our state."

Until this week, the House had favored keeping the state's gambling industry status quo, but on Wednesday the chamber agreed to a number of changes. Aside from allowing the Seminole Tribe's seven Florida casinos to add craps and roulette, the House also agreed to provide a financial boost for parimutuels such as Tampa Bay Downs that don't have slot machines.

The House also backed down from its opposition to allowing greyhound tracks and most horse tracks to eliminate live racing while keeping more lucrative activities, such as slots and poker, as long as voters approve the move.

"We know that time is running out, so we wanted to make a substantial offer to the Senate," began Rep. Jose Felix Diaz, R-Miami, the House's chief negotiator, on the second day of a gambling conference between the chambers.

Not all the details are known yet.

The Senate plan offers big help to Tampa Bay Downs by increasing the purse pool for horse racing, but while the House agreed Wednesday to expand the purse pool for thoroughbred racing, it did not offer specifics.

Under the Senate plan, Tampa Bay Downs would be guaranteed $10 million a year from the gaming compact as part of a "purse pool" to offset the fact that it is so close to the Seminole Hard Rock Casino and does not have slot machines, as parimutuels in South Florida do.

In addition, Tampa Bay Downs would be eligible to go after a portion of another $10 million aimed at helping to keep thoroughbred racing alive by assuring tracks have live racing.

Sen. Dana Young, R-Tampa, said Tampa Bay Downs will be able to attract more top horses and races with higher purse pools, which in turn can draw more people to a facility that is within 10 miles of the Hard Rock Casino. Young said Tampa Bay Downs shouldn't be put at a competitive disadvantage just because it doesn't have slot machines like other tracks in Florida would be able to have under the gambling deal legislators are trying to work out.

"There is a realization in the parimutuel industry and gaming industry that this is unfair," she said.

Sen. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, said the provision is important not just to help Tampa Bay Downs compete, but also to help preserve the thoroughbred horse industry in Florida. Without live racing venues like Tampa Bay Downs, horse breeders in Florida would be impacted.

The House proposal allows for an expansion of gambling in South Florida by allowing a new casino to open in Miami-Dade County — as long as it is 5 miles away from an existing parimutuel, chosen by a competitive bid, results in the surrendering of an active parimutuel permit and operates no more than 1,500 slot machines.

The House also agreed to a Senate conclusion that slot machine look-alikes used in bars and convenience stores be designated as Class III games that are not allowed in Florida. The House agreed to lower the tax rate on slot machines as long as casinos reduce the number of slot machines they operate and authorizes designated-player card games with strict new provisions.

The proposal brings the House further than it has in years by agreeing to so-called "decoupling" — allowing parimutuels to discontinue live racing but to hold on to their gambling permit if county voters approve it.

Even with decoupling, Tampa Bay Downs intends to continue with live races.

Galvano said the Senate would return later Wednesday with its counteroffer.

Times staff writer Steve Contorno contributed to this report. Contact Mary Ellen Klas at meklas@miamiherald.com. Follow @MaryEllenKlas.

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