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."