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Senate and House agree to one more study to determine fate of treacherous gaming policy

The Florida Senate Committee on Gaming continued to do what its chairman said was to “creating the foundation of understanding” for a sweeping rewrite of the state’s gambling laws, which is expected to come next year.

In an unusual move, Senate Committee Chairman Garrett Richter, R-Naples, has reached an agreement with House leaders to pay for an independent company to conduct a study about the economic and social impact of the state’s existing gambling laws on the state economy and what impact of expansion or changes might have.

“We’ve got a lot of work to do,’’ Richter told the committee at a hearing on Wednesday. He said the committee may not meet during the upcoming session as they await the results of the study and he expects  legislation to wait until next session.

The request for proposal will come sometime before lawmakers convene in regular session on March 5, he said. But the breadth and scope of the study, as well as who will conduct it, is still undetermined.

“A study can sometimes get you where you want to go,’’ said Sen. Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, who asked what the RFP will look like. 

“It’s a work in process,” Richter responded.

The committee heard from representatives of the state’s dog and horse tracks as well as gambling opponents and staff from the Florida Council on Compulsive Gambling.

Donn R. Mitchell, chief administrative officer of Isle of Capri Casinos, told the committee his company supports changing in the law but also wants parity between his industry and any new gambling casino operation.

“We don’t believe the status quo is going to be the best path forward…a level playing field is going to be the right path forward that is smart growth with full parity,” Mitchell said.

Sen. Gwen Margolis, D-Miami, asked for a state-by-state comparison of the various tax rates and impact on the economy.

Mitchell said there are high tax rate states which basically have created semi-monopolies while those with low taxes have more competition. “The tax rate will define what the industry becomes,’’ Mitchell said.

Cari Roth, lobbyist for Tampa Bay Downs, said her company pays over $15 million in purses but it is a “business in peril.” The horse track is ranked third of the 68 tracks in the nation but its purses have remained static. In South Florida, Gulfstream Race Track has purses that are nearly double because it can subsidize its purses with slot machines.

“Purses are subsidized by other kinds of activites,’’ Roth said. Tampa Bay Downs is “the only Florida thoroughbred track that doesn’t have other kinds of gaming like slot machines. Gaming is subsidized in almost every other state that competes with them.”

Across Tampa Bay, the Seminoles offer slots and banked card games at their Hard Rock Casino, and have become the 6th largest gaming casino in the world and the fourth largest in the nation. Since they opened, gaming at Tampa Bay Downs has declined dramatically. The Seminoles just put another $75 million into their facility.

The industry faces a smaller number of horses and less ability to attract them. Half of the purses goes to the horsemen in Florida. “We have a declining number of horses racing and the number of horses racing per race has reduced by a horse,’’ Roth said. “You can see why we are concerned about a business threat to this very venerable gaming industry.”

She asked that they consider thoroughbred racing as a different kind of gaming.

Without slot machines, “We don’t have a way to attract that ever smaller number of horses.”

Gary Rutledge, who represented greyhound racing in Sarasota, Washington County, Tampa Bay kennel clubs. For many “the handle has plummeted to the point where they don’t generate the revenue” to cover the state regulatory cost, he said.

Sen. Maria Sachs, D-Boca Raton, asked him if there is a future for greyhound racing in the state. Rutledge answered that in places like Derby Lane and others may continue to thrive “in the near term” but for others “there’s no future there.”

Sen. Tom Lee, R-Brandon, said the industry saw this coming.

“The pari-mutuel industry was in decline, we continued to have to reduce the tax rates because they weren’t profitable…what it seems to me like what has hppned over time is the expectations or the vision of the indstyr…the pari-mutuel permits have just become an anchor for gamling. You pull all of that out and these licenses are worthless, isn’t that pretty much true.

Rutledge said the amount of money waged in live racing is not what sustains them.

Lee continued. “There is nothing this committee, this legislature can do to bring pari-mutuel gambling back in favor with the public. That ship has sailed.”

Rutledge: “You’re absolutely right.”

Lee suggested that if the Legislature wants to move forward with public policy, "it’s going to be gambling. It’s not going to be pari-mutuel wagering. That’s just where we’re at in the 21st Century."