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Richter: Senate gaming bill 'has no surprises'

Senate Gaming Chairman Garrett Richter told the Herald/Times on Monday that the sweeping rewrite of the state's gaming laws proposed by the Senate "should come as no surprise to anybody" -- including the broad expansion of gambling.

The proposal the Senate unveiled on Monday would bring casino resorts to Miami Dade and Broward counties and subject the the gaming industry to new regulation with the creation of a Gaming Control Commission. 

Under the Senate proposal, Miami-Dade and Broward would each get a new resort casino, dog tracks could race fewer dogs, greyhound injuries would be reported — and all this could happen without voter approval. (It's uncertain whether slot machines would be allowed at the Palm Beach Kennel Club and the five other tracks in countries that have approved gaming.) 

The proposals, contained in three separate bills, are the product of nearly a year of study and more than $400,000 in taxpayer money spent to review the economic and revenue impact of bringing resort casinos to Florida.

The largest of the bills, 453-page SPB 7052, would create a five-member Gaming Control Board appointed by the governor to regulate all facets of the industry – from arcade games to casinos.

“I thought this would be a very good starting line to have the discussion,’’  Richter told the Herald/Times. “I think the bill is composed of statutes and regulations that have the best interests of Florida in mind.”

Richter said the rewrite is an attempt to “reform the current patchwork of laws into an orderly structure.” He said it is a preliminary proposal that will be vetted for weeks when the Legislature begins its two-month session before it is finalized by his committee.

In addition to licensing two destination resort casinos in South Florida, the bill allows for a reduction in the number of dog races conducted at the state’s 13 greyhound tracks, and requires that track owners and trainers report dog injuries for the first time in 80 years.

All the changes would take effect this year under the plan but it also proposes a constitutional amendment to require voter approval for any new gambling expansion into the future. Counties and cities that are home to the destination resorts in Miami Dade and Broward would also have to give their consent

“It’s Christmas in February for out of state gambling interests, and their entire wish list can be found in these bills,’’ said John Sowinski, president of No Casinos, the Orlando-based gaming opposition group.  “This legislation reeks of gambling interest influence. I have yet to find any major provision that isn’t there at the request of somebody in the gambling industry.”

If approved, the Senate proposal could face steep resistance from House leaders, the incoming Senate leader – Sen. Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando -- and even the governor, who doesn't want the issue on his plate in an election year.

Complicating the proposal is the fact that any expansion of gambling in Florida could nullify the state’s $230 million-a-year gaming compact with the Seminole Tribe. The tribe makes monthly payments to the state in return for the exclusive right to offer black jack and other card games at its casinos in South Florida and slot machines at casinos in other parts of the state.

Richter said it would be up to the governor to re-negotiate the compact if the Senate proposal were approved, but he acknowledged that Scott can control the time frame.

Scott has been reluctant to begin negotiations with the Seminoles that could result in the expansion of gambling in an election year and, while his staff has met with members of the tribe, they have not met with the tribe’s attorney, Barry Richard, the person the tribe has designated to lead any compact negotiation.

Richter said he couldn’t answer whether the component of the Senate proposal would raise enough revenue to offset the $230 million lost by the tribe. “I don’t have an answer to that,’’ he said.

He acknowledged, however, that absent the governor’s support, the bill could have a difficult time passing – even in the Senate where support for gambling expansion is strong.

“You have to have 21 votes,’’ he said.

Richter’s announcement came three weeks after he initially said the proposal would be ready for review. In the interim, legislators have been meeting in Tallahassee for pre-session meetings during the day and strings of fundraisers at night, collecting checks from all sides of the gambling industry.

Meanwhile, Florida’s business lobbying groups have lined up on both sides of the issue -- a reflection of their contribution base. Tom Feeney, who is now head of Associated Industries of Florida and once was a gambling opponent as the House speaker from Orlando, commended the Senate proposal as courageous and called on the House to follow.

AIF’s undisclosed contributors include Las Vegas Sands and Genting, the leading proponents for a casino resort in South Florida.

The Senate proposals “clears away all the smoke, misinformation and untruths and brings a clear focus on the benefits a limited number of integrated resorts will have in South Florida,’’ Feeney wrote in a statement.

On the opposing side is the Florida Chamber of Commerce, whose largest members include Disney and other Florida entertainment companies that fear the competition the resort casinos will have on their convention business.