October 23, 2015

Animal advocates say they are going to take greyhound fight directly to voters

GreyhoundsStymied for years by broken promises and the tangled politics of gaming in Florida, a coalition of animal advocates announced Friday that it is forming a political committee to pass ballot initiatives that reform and phase out greyhound racing in the state.

The “Committee to Protect Dogs” includes representatives from local animal rights organizations from across the state, and Sen. Eleanor Sobel, a Hollywood Democrat.

“Every initiative option is on the table, including a statewide constitutional amendment to prohibit dog racing,’’ said Anjali Sareen of Altamonte Springs, who is chairing the group.

The group’s goal is to push for county-based initiatives to require greyhound injury reporting, stop feeding dogs diseased meat, prohibit the use of anabolic steroids in female greyhounds, and improve housing conditions for race dogs.

“Thousands of greyhounds endure lives of confinement at these facilities, kept in small cages that are barely large enough for them to stand up or turn around,’’ Sareen said in a statement. “This industry is cruel and inhumane, and only exists today because of a government mandate that forces gambling facilities to race dogs.”

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October 14, 2015

With deadline looming, Seminoles secretly meet with governor to renew compact

With an Oct. 31 deadline looming that would officially end the current multi-million dollar compact between the state and the Seminole Tribe, Gov. Rick Scott secretly met with top officials of the Hard Rock Casinos in his office Wednesday morning.

Officials from the tribe, which own the Hard Rock Casinos in Hollywood and Tampa, flew to Tallahassee on their private jet for the meeting, which the governor had scheduled but did not include on his daily schedule.

A key provision of the 2010 compact that allows the tribe to operate table games such as blackjack, baccarat and chemin de fer in exchange for payments to the state, expired at the end of July but, according to the agreement, it remains in force another 90 days -- until Oct. 31.

Legislators spent this summer and fall negotiating whether to renew, amend or expand the compact, which must be signed by the governor and approved by the legislature, said Rep. Jose Felix Diaz, the lead negotiator for the House.

They discussed increasing the revenue to the state by guaranteeing a yearly payment of $200 million to $400 million, based on revenues, over time frames that range from 7 to 20 years, and numerous other options, but they have approved no details, he said.

“We met a month ago to see if we could agree on the 30,000-foot issues and we didn’t agree,” Diaz told the Herald/Times. Scott’s legal staff has attended most of the negotiations, he said.

Diaz, a Miami Republican who chairs the House Regulated Affairs Committee, said the matter is complicated because legislators are divided over most of the issues and any final agreement must appease those who want to protect their local parimutuels, tamp down gaming expansion or use the compact to generate more state revenue.

“I think this deal lives and dies in the drafting stage,’’ he said. “A compact, a compact extension, or an amendment will require significant lawyering.”

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October 13, 2015

Survey: Floridians remained financially stressed; and most support diplomacy with Cuba

Florida voters remain financially stressed but don’t think they’re being overtaxed and are supportive of resuming diplomatic relations with Cuba, according to the latest USF-Nielsen Sunshine State Survey released Tuesday. 

The wide-ranging survey conducted July 30 through Aug. 16 found that 71 percent of all Floridians continue to feel the effects of the Great Recession and identify the economy and jobs as the issue that remains most important to them.  Download Sunshine State Survey 2015 2

But, in the second installment of the survey of 1,251 random adults, people identified the biggest threats to the state economy as loss of jobs, government waste and inefficiency – at both the state and local level – and undocumented residents and workers.

“What this release shows is that Floridians are still stressed economically,’’ said University of South Florida public affairs professor Susan MacManus, who directed the survey. “They are very much still looking somewhat judgmentally, and in a negative fashion, toward state and local leadership. And they are hopeful for attention to transportation and infrastructure.” 

Most people pointed to either investing in education and training or improving the state’s infrastructure – each with 23 percent – as the best way to improve the state’s job climate. Only 15 percent pointed to cutting or limiting taxes and regulations.

The survey shows that support for improving the state’s infrastructure, especially transportation, increased from 17 percent in 2014 to 23 percent this year, while support for cutting or limiting taxes and regulations dropped from 21 percent in 2014 to 15 percent in 2015.

"Along with population growth comes more congestion and longer commutes—which is at least a partial explanation for growing support for infrastructure improvements,'' she said. 

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August 08, 2015

Seminole Tribe's lawyer: Compact negotiations are 'going nowhere'

With legislators poised to return Monday to Tallahassee, rumors are circling that they are also ready to finish off a deal with the Seminole Tribe of Florida that expands the multi-million dollar gaming compact with the state in return for more money in the state's pocketbook. 

But, according to a chief negotiator for the Tribe, Tallahassee attorney Barry Richard, such talk is "going nowhere" and the stalemate that began months ago has continued. 

Friday was the deadline for the state to agree to a mediator to settle the dispute from a proposed list of mediators offered to it from the American Arbitration Association. Btu with no response from the governor's general counsel Tim Cerio, the Tribe sent the state a note saying they've picked someone themselves. 

"I don't know what that will do,'' Richard conceded Friday.

The tribe hit a deadline on July 31, when a portion of the  20-year gaming compact that authorizes them to exclusively offer "banked" card games such as blackjack and baccarat at five of its seven casinos expired.

The Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation asked the tribe to provide them with a "timeline for the closure of banked card games at your tribal facilities" but the tribe has failed to do so. Under the 2010 compact with the state,the tribe has 90 days to quit offering the lucrative games.

As part of that deal, the Seminoles also pledged to pay the state a minimum of $1 billion over five years in exchange for the exclusive right to operate the banked card games.

The tribe argues that it is entitled to continue operating the banked games under the federal Indian Gaming Regulatory Act because the state allows electronic versions of blackjack at racinos in South Florida in violation of the exclusivity provisions of the compact.

Last month, it sent the state a "notice of commencement of compact dispute resolution procedures" and asked the state to agree on a mediator under the guidelines outlined in the compact.

Here's the latest letter: Download 8.7.15 Seminole - Mediation Preference

July 27, 2015

As expected, Seminole Tribe awaits showdown with the state over Blackjack

via Gary @Fineout

A deal authorizing blackjack and other types of card games at casinos such as the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Hollywood and Tampa expires Friday.

The state’s top gambling regulator wrote a letter to the tribe chairman Monday asking for a meeting where tribal leaders are expected to give state officials a timeline for closing down blackjack tables.

Ken Lawson, the secretary of the Department of Business and Professional Regulation, pointed out that the existing compact requires the tribe to close its blackjack tables within 90 days if legislators do not renew the provision. A proposal to extend the games for one year was considered but did not pass the Florida Legislature. Story here. 

 Update: Sen. Bill Galvano, who was one of the lead negotiators with the Tribe on the original gaming compact, told reporters Monday afternoon that he believes negotiations will resume with the Tribe and they were in the same situation in 2010, when the first compact was invalidated by the Florida Supreme Court. The court ruled their table games in violation of state law and the Tribe sat down and negotiated a deal with the Legislature. 

"I don't think it necessarily means we are headed for litigation,'' said Galvano, R-Bradenton. "This is similar to the position we were in last time before we were able to enter into a deal. I think the state has significant leverage at this point and there's nothing to preclude us from having those negotiations." 

June 24, 2015

Seminole Tribe starts clock on 30-day dispute resolution process over card games

Seminole Tribe of Florida Chairman James E. Billie on Wednesday put Gov. Rick Scott on notice that the tribe believes it is entitled to stop paying the state about $216 million a year and to continue offering banked card games unless the state resolves the issue in formal dispute resolution within 30 days.

Under the 2010 gaming compact with the state, the tribe has the exclusive right to operate banked card games -- black jack, baccarat and chemin de fer --  at five of its seven casinos. But under the terms of the 20-year agreement, the tribe is permitted to continue offering banked card games for the full term of the compact if the state permits anyone else to offer such games. If the tribe is no longer the exclusive provider of the games, it also may stop making revenue payments to the state for them -- an estimated loss of about $216 million a year. 

The tribe contends that the state Division of Parimutuel Wagering has violated its right to offer banked card games exclusively in Florida and therefore it is entitled to operate the games even after the provision of the compact that governs the card games expires in July.

The tribe argues that the state triggered this provision by authorizing various video-based blackjack and baccarat stations at non-tribal slot casinos in Miami Dade and Broward counties in February 2011 and by allowing "double hand poker and three card poker" at cardrooms at Ebro Greyhound Park in North Florida, Tampa Bay Downs and Gulfstream Racetrack in Hallandale Beach last year. 

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May 29, 2015

Court orders state to recognize slot machines in Florida counties with voter approval

From the Associated Press:

Slot machines could be coming to several Florida dog and horse tracks if a far-reaching court ruling holds.

A Florida appeals court Friday ordered state regulators to award a license for slot machines to a north Florida facility located west of the state Capitol.

The First District Court of Appeal ruled by a 2-1 margin that the state improperly denied a slot machine license to a horse track located in Gretna in Gadsden County.

The court said the license should have been granted because Gadsden voters approved a referendum authorizing slots.

The ruling could have a wide impact because voters in several other counties including Lee, Brevard and Palm Beach have approved similar referendums.

State regulators had turned down the slot machine request due to a legal opinion by Attorney General Pam Bondi.

May 01, 2015

Seminole Tribe urges governor and Legislature to resume compact talks

Frustrated by the lack of progress over talks to renew their gaming compact with the state, the Seminole Tribe of Florida sent a letter Friday to Gov. Rick Scott and the Florida Legislature urging them to resume negotiations to allow them the exclusive right to operate black jack and other card games in exchange for payments to Florida.

"The certainty provided by a multi-year agreement to renew the banked card games would allow the Tribe to move forward with plans to invest over $1.6 billion in capital improvements and hire thousands of new employees,'' the Tribe said in a statement accompanying the letter. "The State would further benefit by receiving billions of dollars in exclusivity payments from the Tribe over the term of the new agreement."  

The Tribe wants to renew the portion of the gaming compact that expires on July 31 that allows them to offer banked card games at five of its seven casinos. Legislative leaders had been in negotiations as recently as last week with tribal lawyers, but those talks ended when the House abruptly adjourned in the face of a budget impasse and left town three days early.

Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, one of the Senate negotiators, said last week that the two sides had "made some progress." 

On Friday, a majority of the Senate remained in Tallahassee, awaiting word on a lawsuit brought against the House by Senate Democrats. 

“The Tribe remains hopeful that negotiations can commence soon to reach an agreement that will result in favorable action during a special session of the Florida Legislature,'' the  Seminole statement said.

"By letter delivered today to the Governor, President of the Senate and Speaker of the House, the Tribe has formally renewed its request for negotiations in accordance with the federal Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, which requires the State to negotiate with the Tribe in good faith and provides the Tribe with certain remedies if no agreement is reached within 180 days.”

Here's the letter.

April 22, 2015

Bradley: Gambling bills face long odds as compact discussions are now underway

Senate Regulated Industry Committee Chairman Sen. Rob Bradley said Wednesday that discussions with the Seminole Tribe and the Senate are underway over the resolution of the portion of the gaming compact with the state.

But "there is such a large distance between the two parties” that he expects it “will be very difficult to come to a meeting of the minds” before the session ends on May 1. The casualty, he said, is likely to be passage of any gaming bill this session. 

“The Senate’s position has been consistent, we think when it comes to gaming you deal with the compact first and then deal with these other issues,'' he told the Herald/Times. "We are not going to recommend to our members a deal that doesn’t make sense for the people of the State of Florida.

"Until we arrive at a situation with our negotiations with the Tribe, where we have such a deal, then we’re not going to move forward."

That could mean that any attempt by the House to schedule passage of its sweeping gaming bill, HB 1233, could be in trouble. Or it could mean that the chilled relations between the chambers over the budget and health care impasse are also interfering with progress on other priority bills. In other words, is it posturing? 

House Majority Leader Dana Young, R-Tampa, has signaled the importance of the gaming bill to her this session, first by drafting a massive rewrite of the state's gaming laws that included widespread expansion of gambling options throughout the state.

Facing resistance from conservatives in the House, Young scaled down the bill and on Tuesday the House Finance and Tax Committee voted 10-8 to pass a plan to open the door to slot machines in Palm Beach and Lee counties, but only if approved by legislators, the governor and the Seminole Tribe.

Also included in the plan are two issues important to Young, the so-called "decoupling" of dog racing that makes racing greyhounds optional at tracks that operate poker rooms or slots casinos and requires race tracks to report all dog injuries to the state. 

Bradley, a Fleming Island Republican, said that until the compact is resolved, the Senate is not ready to take up that bill.  

“The only issue we are comfortable peeling off would be the injury reporting issue – the bill that we passed on the first day,’’ he said, referring to the dog injury reporting bill named after former Senate President Don Gaetz's wife, Victoria Gaetz.

“As far as those other gaming issues – whether it be decoupling, the Palm Beach and Lee County slots, the Senate’s position is we deal with the compact first and then we have a comprehensive package,'' Bradley. 

April 21, 2015

House committee squeezes out gaming bill to phase out dog racing as promoters keep heat on

House F and T gamingThe calm in the lobbyist-packed room belied the intensity of the behind-the-scenes battle underway to end the House’s resistance to gambling expansion.

Before the Finance and Tax Committee met, House Speaker Steve Crisafulli added Rep. Jim Boyd, R-Bradenton to the committee -- an extra vote of assurance to help the bill make it through the tough committee.

As the vote looked close, lobbyists Ron Book, Brian Ballard and Sean Pittman quietly met in the corner of the meeting room with Rep. Hazelle Rogers, attempting to get the Lauderhill Democrat to end her opposition to the bill. The lobbyists represent Palm Beach and Naples tracks who have been trying for years to get slots at their tracks.

In the end, a last-minute switch by Republican Rep. John Tobia of Melbourne Beach to support the bill, and a decision by Rep. Frank Artiles, R-Miami, to miss the vote, brought HB 1233 to victory.

The vote was 10-8 for what could be the most expansive rewrite of Florida’s gaming laws in a decade, when voters authorized slot machines. It opens the door to expanding slot machines at the Palm Beach Kennel Club and the Flagler Race Track in Naples if agreed to by the Seminole Tribe in a legislatively-approved compact. 

Most important for its author, Rep. Dana Young, R-Tampa, it "decouples" the requirement that greyhound tracks continue to race a minimum number of races in order to operate the more lucrative poker rooms or slots casinos and requires tracks that continue to race to report all dog injuries. 

Young urged her colleagues to vote for the bill "on behalf of the thousands of racing greyhounds that are bred and live their lives to do nothing but run around a circle with no one watches." 

But the measure still faces steep hurdles. The Florida Senate is awaiting a vote on its version of gambling expansion -- a plan that would also extend the compact with the Seminole Tribe for one year.

Animal activists who want to end dog racing aren't taking any chances. Starting Tuesday, Grey2K USA launched an aggressive email and phoning campaign urging their supports to appeal to lawmakers to pass the bill. 

"There are ten days left in the Florida legislative session, and we are very close to a major victory for the dogs!,'' the email states. "In the next few days, the Florida House of Representatives will vote on House Bill 1233, a very important measure that will help thousands of greyhounds. HB 1233 includes two important new laws: it will decouple dog racing from other types of gambling, and also will require that greyhound injuries be reported to the public.

"Please contact your State Representative right away and ask for a YES vote on House Bill 1233." 

Photo: Gaming lobbyists Ron Book and Brian Ballard leave their seats during a meeting of the House Finance and Tax Committee meeting before they meet with Rep. Hazelle Rogers at the side of the room. By Mary Ellen Klas