March 17, 2016

Future of gaming in Florida will be decided by courts; special session 'unlikely'

Casino picWhen legislators finished their annual session last week without a gaming bill or a compact with the Seminole Tribe, they raised the stakes on the future of casinos in Florida, and it’s precisely where gaming opponents want it.

Instead of lawmakers deciding the future of expanded gambling, that decision will now be made by the courts in pending lawsuits before the Florida Supreme Court and a federal judge.

The court could conclude that lawmakers have no authority to authorize slot machines outside of Miami-Dade and Broward counties without statewide voter approval, thereby neutering the Legislature’s influence. It could say that only the Legislature can decide where to put new games.

Or a third option — the most explosive of all and the one the plaintiffs are hoping for — could open the door to unprecedented expansion of slot machines if the court rules that Palm Beach and Gadsden counties could seek permits to install slots machines because local voters have approved it.

“It could become a free-for-all for slot machines across the state,” said Rep. Jose Felix Diaz, R-Miami, the House’s chief negotiator who spent the last six months trying to work out acompact with the governor and the tribe, as well as a gaming bill that suited the Senate and the diverse interests of the pari-mutuel industry.

“If that happens, you can’t put the genie back in the bottle. The pari-mutuels across the state will argue they have some vested right to slot machines, and they will fight tooth and nail to make sure their legislators are not voting against them.” Story here. 

March 04, 2016

After death of gaming bill, House passes injury reporting at greyhound tracks

After rejecting legislation to require the greyhound racing industry to report animal injuries for the last four years, the Florida House approved an amendment Friday that requires track owners to disclose dog deaths, and is poised to pass the measure last week.

The bill is a concession to animal rights advocates, who have fought for the measure that has passed the Senate unanimously in the last two years, but has been entangled in pari-mutuel industry politics in the House.

After the gaming bill was declared dead by House leaders this week, supporters of the measure pushed to the measure added to a routine regulatory bill, said Rep. Jared Moskowitz, D-Coral Springs, the sponsor of the the amendment to HB 1167.

Under the amendment, any injury to a racing greyhound in Florida must be reported to the Division of Pari-mutuel Wagering within 7 days.

"This would be the first significant piece of greyhound protection legislation to ever pass the Florida legislature,'' said Carey M. Theil, executive Director of GREY2K USA Worldwide, which advocates for an end to dog racing. "We're hopeful lawmakers will send this good bill to the governor in the coming days."

Unlike other states, Florida’s greyhound industry does not have to report when dogs are injured as a result of racing or training. The measure imposes fines on track veterinarians who fail to report race-related injuries and follows a similar bill passed in 2013 that requires tracks to report greyhound deaths.

Under the current law, the reports show that 79 greyhounds died in 2013, 113 in 2014 and 93 in 2015 -- an average of one every three days due to race-related causes.

If a greyhound dies on the racetrack, it has to be reported, but if the death occurs outside the track and they euthanize the dog somewhere else, they don't have to report it as a race-related death. 

The requirement to report all injuries, "closes that loophole,'' Moskowitz said. "If the greyhound dies in a car or at the vet, it should be reported."

He suggested that dog trainers and owners don't want to report the deaths because if the reporting shows there are hundreds more deaths than previously known, it might increase the public opposition to racing.

Moskowitz said that when an injury reporting requirement was passed in Massachusetts, deaths to racing dogs declined by 40 percent in the first year, he said, because "it's less expensive to euthanize dogs than it is to fix a broken leg and they don't want you to know they are euthanizing the dogs."

In the last two years, the Senate named its bill after Vicky Gaetz, the wife of former Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, who is an animal lover and who worked to help persuade lawmakers to pass the death reporting bill

The Florida Greyhound Association, which represents owners, trainers and breeders, has opposed injury reporting without passing additional requirements to keep dogs safe, suggesting that instead it is a public relations effort by the animal activists aimed to end dog racing. The organization has repeatedly pushed for a three-pronged plan to require tracks to end practices that cause most dog injuries -- poorly maintained track surfaces, electrocution caused by non-insulated electrical lines carrying the "lure," and lures that injure dogs. 

"If they really wanted to help dogs, they'd try to prevent injuries,'' said Ramon Maury, lobbyist for the greyhound association. "But they don't care about dogs. They want to use the strategy against us."  

March 02, 2016

Tom Lee and Andy Gardiner spear the corpse: gaming bill is dead

If anyone thought there was a chance of resurrecting the gaming bills at Thursday's Senate Appropriations Committee meeting, Senate President Andy Gardiner and budget chairman, Sen. Tom Lee, extinguished that possibility late Wednesday.

"It's just a bridge too far this late,'' said Lee, R-Brandon, after the agenda to the last meeting of his committee was posted with no gaming bills. "We don't have the time on the agenda. There's not an agreement. Every time you put a gaming bill up in the Florida Legislature it's like throwing a side of beef into a shark tank."

Meanwhile, Gardiner, R-Orlando, contradicted claims from members of the pari-mutuel industry that he was the force that stopped the gaming bills from advancing to the Senate floor.

"I've heard the lobbyists, the gaming guys, trying to misconstrue my comments,'' Gardiner told reporters. "If something came to my desk. I would not block it. As far as I know, it has not come to my desk. I will support the sponsor of the bill. We can't try to rewrite history here.

"Sen. Bradley negotiated a compact with the governor's office for months. In committee, an amendment was put on his bill which he voted against. So I don't think anybody would be surprised when he stands up before the committee and TPs his bill. This idea that we would just waive all the rules because somebody wants to have a vote on the floor -- we're going to follow what the chair recommendation is. There's still time but I think people need to make sure we don't misconstrue what I said."

"As I've said before, gaming bills tend to die of their own weight. What happened in the committee, the reality is what they did violated the existing compact,'' he said. "Members have to decide if they want to do that. An argument could be made, if you pass that bill as amended, we would have had to take $75 million from the existing budget we're presently negotiating. I think it just got too heavy and the sponsor decided to do away with it." 

March 01, 2016

Senate committee tables gambling bills, likely ending debate for session

Bradley and Galvano

Mired by the prospect of uncertain court rulings and constant infighting by an aggressive industry, the Florida Senate signaled Tuesday that efforts to rewrite the state's gambling bills and ratify a gaming agreement with the Seminole Tribe may be dead for the session.

The Senate Appropriations Committee tabled two Senate bills that would have ratified the compact with the tribe, SB 7074, and a bill that would have opened the door to expanding slot machines in at least five counties where voters have approved it, SB 7072.

"It's not coming back up,'' said Sen. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, before the meeting.

Sen. Tom Lee, R-Brandon, chairman of the committee said the bills are likely dead for the session that is scheduled to end March 11, but it would be up to the bill sponsor, Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, to revive them at the next meeting of the committee on Thursday.

"Nothing's dead until the handkerchief drops but I would be very, very surprised if we saw any action on this issue this session,'' Bradley told the Herald/Times, noting that the proposal had become too laden with ways to expand gaming that it was unworkable.

If the Legislature fails to ratify the deal negotiated between the Gov. Rick Scott and the Seminole Tribe, it would be another blow to the governor's goals this session. In December, the governor signed a 20-year compact that would guarantee $3 billion over 7 years in exchange for giving the tribe the exclusive ability to offer craps and roulette in Florida, and slots and black jack outside Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach.

The guarantee has been touted as the largest Indian gaming agreement in U.S. history but it will not become law without legislative ratification.

Until then, the tribe continues to have the exclusive right to slot machines outside of Miami-Dade and Broward County in return for monthly revenue sharing payments of about $100 million under the 2010 compact. Another provision of that compact, which authorizes the tribe's exclusive operation of black jack at its South Florida casinos, has expired.

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February 29, 2016

House sends 'love note' to Senate and agrees to expand gambling outside South Florida

CasinoIn a long-shot bid to keep a gambling overhaul bill alive, the House Finance & Tax Committee sent a “love card to the Senate” on Monday, accepting its proposal to allow dog tracks to operate slot machines in at least five counties where voters have approved them.

The plan would require the governor to renegotiate the agreement he struck with the Seminole Tribe of Florida and would likely result in a lower guarantee of revenues than the $3 billion the tribe has already authorized.

It also means that one of Florida's oldest industries, greyhound racing, would be replaced by slot machines in Palm Beach, Brevard, Gadsden, Lee and Washington counties. A handful of other counties could conduct voter referendums by January 2017 to be allowed to replace dog tracks, quarter horse tracks or jai alai frontons with slot machines.

Only parimutuels within a 100 mile radius of the Seminole's most profitable facility — the Hard Rock Casino in Tampa — would be exempt from being able to seek voter approval for slot machines. That would affect parimutels such as Tampa Bay Downs, Tampa Bay Greyhound Track,, St. Petersburg Kennel Club and Sarasota Kennel Club.

The compromise was an attempt by the House's lead compact negotiator, Rep. Jose Felix Diaz, R-Miami, and the House Finance & Tax Committee chairman, Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach, to find a way to win enough votes for the compact in the Senate before lawmakers end the session in two weeks. But Senate leaders have indicated that the deal may be too complicated to resolve with the time remaining.

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February 22, 2016

Bob Graham argues in Gretna gambling case: No slots without statewide referendum

 

Bob GrahamAs a member of the state House when Florida rewrote its constitution in 1968, former U.S. Sen. and Gov. Bob Graham believes a lot of people are missing the point in the current gaming debate.

Graham filed a friend of the court brief on Monday in the case involving Gretna Racing LLC, arguing that the Legislature, Gov. Rick Scott's administration and the company that is trying to get a slots permit in the rural community, have misread the Florida Constitution. His argument: there is no authority to open the door to additional slot machines, or any other forms of gambling, without a statewide referendum and the court should reject Gretna’s argument. Download Amicus Curiae Initial Brief

It's the third argument offered in what is shaping up to be a landmark case before the Florida Supreme Court this spring. It could have immediate implications on the gaming compact signed between Scott and the Seminole Tribe and the legislative debate over expanded gambling.

The court, which has not yet scheduled oral arguments in the case, is being asked to decide if Gadsden County -- and by extension, any other county -- has the right to offer slot machines via voter referendum without legislative approval.

Gretna Racing, a consortium with the Poarch band of Creek Indians, argues that it should be allowed to install slot machines at its cardroom and race track along Interstate 10, west of Tallahassee. Gadsden County voters approved a referendum in 2012 that authorized the slot machines at the facility, which had persuaded the state to grant it the country's first pari-mutuel license for rodeo-style barrel racing. 

Continue reading "Bob Graham argues in Gretna gambling case: No slots without statewide referendum" »

February 19, 2016

Gambling future at crossroads as tech generation loses interest in slots

Slots Magic Cityby @MaryEllenKlas and @JeremySWallace

For years, the owners of the dying dog and horse racing industries have seen salvation in the cherry-spinning fortunes behind slot machines.

Their vision was to convert their vast real estate into bold entertainment venues with blue-lighted rooms lined with slot machines, some offering dog racing as a novelty, or thoroughbred derbys as a nostalgic draw.

 

But as Florida legislators decide whether to ratify a deal with the Seminole Tribe that cements into place the parameters of gaming in the state for the next 20 years, no one is talking about one thing: Slot machines are declining, too.

Market research studies show that the massive Millennial generation, those 21- to 34-year-olds who outnumber Baby Boomers, consider slot machines boring and table games only slightly more appealing. The studies show they prefer theme parks and restaurants, adventure travel and games of skill. And, the researchers warn, unless the gaming industry finds a way to capture this tech-savvy generation with online gambling or games delivered to their homes and offices through smartphones, even the games they are hoping to rescue them will die. Story here. 

 

February 16, 2016

Negron is confident he has 'cobbled enough votes together' to pass amendment to expand slots to several counties

A confident Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart, said Tuesday he has the votes to pass his controversial amendment to allow six counties who have who have already conducted voter-approved referenda to operate slot machines at their parimutuels.

The amendment, before the Senate Regulated Industries Committee on Wednesday, would authorize the governor to re-negotiate a gaming compact with the Seminole Tribe to allow for the expanded games in Brevard, Gadsden, Hamilton, Lee, Palm Beach and Washington counties, in return for a lower revenue-share than the $3 billion the tribe has guaranteed.

The amendment, if approved, would be attached to SB 7074 to ratify the rest of the gaming compact with the tribe and accompany a second bill, SB 7072, that would authorize the expansion of slot machines in the six counties, and a handful of other communities that conduct future referenda on slots within a certain time frame, Negron said.

"The voters have approved it,'' he said. "I don't think the government should stand in the way of voter preferences that have been expressed at the ballot box. It's particularly ironic when the State of Florida is running a $5 billion a year numbers game called the Florida Lottery. We are a state that has gaming, including voter-approved lottery, so to me if communities have approved it I don't see why the Legislature would stand in the way if citizens elect to spend their discretionary entertainment dollars."

He said he considers the existing requirement that ties slot licenses to operating horse and dog racing "anachronistic to me" because the sports are on the decline.

He said he will also amend the compact bill, SB 7074, to allow for regulated daily Fantasy Sports betting in Florida without interfering with the tribe's revenue share. He is offering an amendment that will attach his bill to regulate Fantasy Sports to SB 7072, Bradley's companion bill that revises regulations of the pari-mutuel industry. The new regulation would come under a new Office of Amusements, housed in the Department of Business and Professional Regulation -- which also houses the Division of Pari-mutuel Wagering. The office would impose a $500,000 licensing fee on all Fantasy Sports operators to pay for the new bureaucracy.

"There are ongoing discussions about where we are going to land,'' Negron told reporters Tuesday after meeting with Gov. Rick Scott on budget issues. He said he will continue to work with Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, who was involved in the negotiations of the draft proposal. "But everyone understood at the outset that that was the beginning point."

His amendment will allow for each of the six counties who have already conducted voter-approved referendums to operate slot machines at their parimutuels to get a slots permit and would reduce the tax rate on slot machines from 35 percent to 25 percent.

The additional tax revenues from those expanded games would then offset the loss in revenue from the gaming compact with the tribe. Under the initial proposal, the tribe would guarantee the state $3 billion a year for the exclusive right to operate blackjack, craps and roulette at its seven casinos. If the state authorized two additional slots permits at Palm Beach and Miami-Dade, the tribe would not reduce its revenue share. 

"The tribe has to look at the benefits it is getting for exclusivitity and additional games and the opportunity for expanded business opportunities and what they're willing to give up,'' he told reporters on Tuesday. 

He said there has not been an official fiscal note on his amendment "but we have some rough ideas of what additional revenue would come from some of the pari-mutuels that have additional slot opportunities and how that offsets'' the revenue from the tribe.

Negron's plan also gives industry players pieces they have sought for years. Casinos in Miami-Dade and Broward would get up to 25 blackjack tables, 

Negron said he supports the compact and wants it to pass. "I think the compact is in the best interest of Florida moving forward,'' he said, adding that his amendment will also "extinguish some potential gaming licenses" to retract the gaming footprint "which is important to some members of the committee."

"The Seminole Tribe wants a compact to pass and they've known all along there would be modifications and revisions,'' he said. "So we're just trying to cobble together enough votes out of the committee tomorrow." 

Negron said that he and Scott did not discuss the compact during their brief meeting on the tax cuts and economic incentives. 

 

February 09, 2016

House committee passes bills to ratify compact, expand - and contract - gambling, and then shut the door

@Mary Ellen Klas and @JeremySWallace

The House Regulated Affairs Committee on Tuesday accomplished what has been virtually impossible for the conservative House to do in the last decade: pass a bill that expands gambling in Florida.

The committee not only gave the nod to one bill -- ratifying the agreement between  Gov. Rick Scott and the Seminole Tribe to expand casino games on their reservations -- it also approved an ambitious gambling bill that tightens loopholes in the state's gambling laws but expands casino games at parimutuels in Miami Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties.

Then, to punctuate the message that any future gambling should face very steep hurdles, the committee passed a bill to require that any future attempt at expanding gaming in Florida must receive statewide voter approval -- through a citizen-led initiative.

The House's ambitious suite of proposals were "a work in progress,'' said the sponsor, Rep. Jose Felix Diaz, R-Miami, the chairman of the committee. They are designed to find the sweet-spot to appease the viciously factional gambling industry in the face of the newly-inked agreement with the Seminole Tribe. That agreement promises to bring in $3 billion over seven years starting next year and would help the governor win over critics of his hard-fought tax cut plan.

"Doing a gaming bill is like putting a queen-size sheet on a king-size bed,'' Diaz joked at the close of the three-hour meeting He noted that with every shift in one place, you lose traction in another. "It's impossible to accommodate the interests of every single person." 

That became immediately apparent when the traditionally more gaming-friendly Senate put the brakes on its plan. 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, announced the Senate Regulated Industries Committee would instead take up the issue next week.

A last-minute 40-page amendment by Sen. Joe Negron, R-Stuart, added new drama to the deal. Negron's amendment allows the six dog and horse tracks outside of Palm Beach County who have won voter approval to operate slot machines to operate the games, and it also attempts to appease the concerns of the Florida horse breeders and owners by using $50 million proceeds from the compact to increase racing purses for the thoroughbred industry. The House bill, by contrast, offers 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 after the meeting. He added that while his "full intention" is to have it up next week, budget discussions could consume lawmakers and push any final compact deal to the final week of the legislative session before they can address it. 

"All the same challenges that existed six months ago, one month ago, one week ago, still exist today,'' Bradley said. "So we are still poised and still have plenty of time to complete a compact radification as well as comprehensive gaming legislation. There is plenty of time. "

Both the House and Senate bills not only allow Palm Beach Kennel Club to compete for a slots license, as well as Genting and the Fountainbleau in Miami, they also lower the tax rates for all pari-mutuels that operate slot machines, remove the requirements that greyhound tracks race greyhounds, and they both gives video race terminals to other horse and dog tracks outside of South Florida.

Both plans also remove the requirement that quarter horse tracks like Hialeah Race Course and Pompano Harness track, as well as Calder Race Track, continue horse racing to retain their slots license and the increase the purse pool so that the existing races can become more lucrative. 

That proposal, however, drew vociferous opposition from horse breeders and owners who traveled to Tallahassee to protest. 

Tonya Jurgens, a horse breeder and trainer from Ocala said the provisions that remove the requirement for horse racing at some facilities is a betrayal of the promise the pari-mutual industry made in 2004 when they asked them for their support to win voter support for slot machines.

"The casinos asked us to join them. I feel like the girl with the dowry,'' she said. "Now that they are making big corporate profits they want to kick us to the curb but use our dowry."

House committee rejects attempts to force compact to come to a statewide vote

Gaming crowdThe House Regulatory Affairs Committee meeting is off and running, as they take up three high-profile bills aimed at rewriting the state's gaming laws and ratifying the compact negotiated between Gov. Rick Scott and the Seminole Tribe. 

First up, Rep. Mike Miller, R-Orlando, offered a rewrite of the compact, putting a cap on the number of slots the tribe can offer,  giving blackjack to them for the next 15 years -- but not including craps and roulette and clarifying that they may not relocated their existing gambling facilities.

"I feel the legislative perogative for the members of this committee and the body fo thewhole is ot particcipate in the agreement with the Seminole Tribe,'' he said.

Rep. Jose Felix Diaz, R-Miami, sponsor of the bill to ratify the compact, said he will work on need for clarification about what happens within the reservations but the rest of it could interfere with the amount of money that the state gets. "You can't negotiate more money for the same deal,'' he said. "I understand these are all three important isseus that continue to be discussed with the fundamental parts of this bill."

Paul Seago of No Casinos, argued that the gambling compact "allows for a major expansion of gambling on tribal property and off." He notes it allows the tribe to "the most slot machines in the world" so that it can have more slot machines than any Las Vegas operator and in places never intended by voters when they authorized slot machines in Miami-Dade and Broward in 2004. 

Miller then withdrew the amendment. 

Rep. John Wood, R-Lakeland, offered an amendment to require the public the ratify the compact.

"The spirit of gaming expansion in our state, over the last 20 or 30 years, has been very very cautious, with the full approval of the voters or constituents,'' he said, nothing that many attempts at expansion has been defeated at the ballot box. "This goes to the central focus here of gaming. What do we want for our state. I'm convinced Florida doesn't need gaming and the people who advocate for gaming need us, but we don't need them."

The amendment was defeated.