February 04, 2014

Weatherford says House leaders are now on-board for casino expansion now

After years of resistance, the conservative leadership of the Florida House has signaled its willingness to pass legislation that would expand gambling to include new Las Vegas-style casinos in Miami Dade and Broward in exchange for a constitutional amendment that requires voters to approve any new games in the future.

“I would be willing to talk about gaming in the State of Florida, even expansion, in return for contraction in some areas and passing a constitutional amendment,’’ said House Speaker Will Weatherford in an exclusive interview with the Herald/Times on Tuesday.

Weatherford added, however, that for the House to support new casinos there would have to be two strings attached: Gov. Rick Scott would have to negotiate a new gaming compact with the Seminole Tribe in 2014 — a year before the a key provision is set to expire — and the new casinos would not start up unless a constitutional amendment is passed in November to require voter approval of any subsequent games in the future.

“It’s a trade-off that I’m willing to do,’’ Weatherford said

Weatherford, a Republican from Wesley Chapel, last week told reporters that passing a sweeping gaming bill was not a priority for him this session. However, his statement Tuesday breathes new life into an issue that appeared to be stalled for another year.

It also guarantees that legislators have more time to solicit campaign contributions to their political committees from multi-national casino giants as well as gambling interests in Florida who want their own casinos. Full story here. 

February 03, 2014

State accuses greyhound trainer of forging signature of dead doctor to race dogs

Greyhounds

One of the largest greyhound kennel operators in the state used the signature of a dead Miami veterinarian to forge vaccination records of dogs racing in South Florida, St. Petersburg and Jacksonville, according to a state complaint.

The allegations against James E. “Barney” O'Donnell raise more questions about the safety of the animals that run at Florida’s greyhound tracks and an apparent lack of oversight from the Division of Parimutuel Wagering - the agency assigned to regulate the industry.

State law requires that every kennel show proof that all active and inactive racing dogs be vaccinated for certain diseases such as kennel cough. From July 2010 until the end of 2011, O’Donnell offered regulators proof that 94 of his dogs who raced at Mardi Gras Racetrack in Hallandale Beach, the Orange Park Kennel Club in Jacksonville and the St. Petersburg Kennel Club had been vaccinated.

The documents included the signature of a long-time Miami veterinarian, Dr. Emilio Vega.

But there was one problem: Vega was dead.

“Dr. Emilio Vega has been deceased since June 30, 2010, and therefore did not administer vaccinations to Respondents greyhounds between July 2010 and 2011,’’ the state wrote in its complaint.

The state now is asking an administrative law judge to fine O’Donnell $96,000 and revoke his license to race greyhounds. Story here. 

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Richter: We should have a destination casino in Miami and/or Broward

Senate Gaming Committee Chairman Garrett Richter on Monday endorsed a Las Vegas-style gambling casino in Miami and indicated that the bill the Senate proposes next week will offer up the expanded games but not the rest of the state. 

"There's not a chance that this legislature will consider a bill that will provide for unlimited casinos statewide,'' said Richter, a Republican Naples banker. But, he added, "I happen to think that a destination resort in Miami would be a good thing for the state of Florida. I think it will attract new revenue dollars.''

Richter told the committee that he is also open to building a casino resort in Broward and that any requirement to ask voters to approve of any new games would apply only "after this legisalture acts."

In other words, Richter believes this Legislature should expand gambling and only changes that occur after this year would voters be asked to approve.

The proposed constitutional amendment would be used to "approve anything after this legislative session, not as a result of this legislative session,'' he said. 

House Speaker Will Weatherford told reporters last week that he will not support any legislation that does not allow for a statewide voter approval of any gambling expansion. When asked by the Herald/Times what he meant by expansion, Weatherford said: "new games."

Richter said the agreement he believes the Senate leadership has with the House is that any requirement for voter approval would apply to when the industry comes back to the Legislature asking for more games in the future. "If you require something more, it's going to require a constitutional amendment,'' he said.

He disagreed that his position means he supports more casinos. "I'm not opening the door to casinos, we already have casino gambling,'' he said.

Richter, who is serving on the committee for the first time, will dictate what gets into the draft bill to be released Feb. 10 and said he will work to get a destination resort casino, as proposed by Las Vegas Sands and Genting in Miami.

"As I’ve gone through the learning curve, I would be in favor or one or more licenses that would be competitively bid -- either by the existing casino operators or the Seminole Tribe," he said.

 

 

Senate committee proposes elements of a gambling overhaul in Florida

The Florida Senate is in the midst of drafting a sweeping overhaul of the state's gambling legislation and, judging by the committee's checklist, it will include a grab bag of goodies for many seeking to restructure, and expand, gambling in Florida. Whether any of it will pass this election year, is another story.

"I'm not sure when we cross the finish line,'' said Sen. Garrett Richter, chairman of the Senate Gaming Committee on Monday. He said the bill to be released Feb. 10 will be at least 300 pages long and the Senate's effort is "a signficant endeavor." The committee today will discuss what elements it would like to include.

Among the likely components in the bill:

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January 29, 2014

Legislative leaders lower expectations on a gambling bill

House Speaker Will Weatherford and Senate President Don Gaetz continued to lower expectations on the odds of a massive rewrite of Florida's gambling laws to get passed this year. 

"There are some issues that are forced on us by consequence, constitution, timing and gaming is an issue that is forced to the stage either this year or next year by the fact that the Seminole compact is up for some re-negotiation,'' Gaetz said, referring to the state's agreement with the Seminole Tribe that gives them a monopoly in exchange for about $250 million in annual payments to the state. One segment of the agreement is up for renewal in 2015.

"When you do that, you touch the dominoes that make everything else effective. I don't think expansion of gaming, or gaming legislation, would be a Will Weatherford or a Don Gaetz priority...It's not something we want to be involved in but it's something circumstances probably require either us or our successors to do something about."  

As the Herald/Times reported on Sunday, Gov. Rick Scott is also keeping his distance on the constroversial issues of gambling as he seeks re-election. That could change if Republicans determine that putting a constitutional amendment regarding gambling on the ballot could draw some voters to the polls that would support the governor.

Speaking to reporters at the annual AP Legislative Planning Session in Tallahassee, the Republican leaders downplayed the chances of moving legislation through this election year despite spending $400,000 and conducting a series of hearings around the state. 

Both leaders said they will not vote for any new gambling options in Florida without a provision for a statewide constitutional amendment. 

"The Legislature has demonstrated, over the last 30-40 years, frankly an inability to create normalcy, to create predictability in the gaming environment,'' said Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel. "It has allowed for more loopholes that I could count. I believe for the Florida House to even take up, to even consider a gaming bill, that we would have to have confidence that we are going to put a constitutional amendment on the with regard to the people to have a voice or I don't think you'll see us taking up gaming in the House."

Weatherford said the amendment would have to be a "referendum that would be approved at 60 percent for any other expansion of gaming. I thnk the citizens of Florida want to have their hand on the wheel when it comes to expansion of gambling." 

He defines expansion, he said, as "anything new."

 

January 26, 2014

Election year realities dampen governor, GOP enthusiasm for gambling debate

As Gov. Rick Scott ramps up his re-election bid, he wants his legacy to be the state's declining unemployment rate and jobs, but the next few months could shape his message on a more controversial issue: gambling.

Will the state renew or expand the Seminole Tribe's monopoly on blackjack and other casino-style table games? Should the state allow slot machines in communities, like Palm Beach and Naples, whose voters have approved them at their racetracks? Will casino giants Genting and Las Vegas Sands be allowed to build a resort casino on the shores of Biscayne Bay or in Broward County?

Because it's an election year, most observers believe the governor will avoid finding answers.

The issues don't lend themselves to 30-second campaign spots and pressure is mounting for lawmakers to postpone a decision on the most controversial gambling ideas until next year. Senate Gaming Committee Chairman Garrett Richter, R-Naples, is already lowering expectations.

"If an election year has any influence, it could influence the magnitude of what's undertaken,'' he told the Times/Herald. He suggested that a modest bill that tightens loopholes may get passed with everything else shuttled to another year. Story here.

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January 23, 2014

State suspects dog tracks of using steroids on greyhounds

GreyhoundsSteroids: They’re not just for professional athletes. They’re also for race dogs.

A dog trainer at the Flagler and Hollywood greyhound tracks has been charged with illegally possessing performance-enhancing drugs, raising the prospect that drugs are being illegally used to enhance racing results.

The Florida Division of Parimutuel Wagering charged James “Barney” O’Donnell, the operator of the Florida Kennel Compound in Hialeah, with violating state laws that prohibit the possession of the drugs where racing animals are kept. The facility, which houses hundreds of dogs, is jointly owned by Mardi Gras and Flagler dog tracks.

O’Donnell, 84, is one of the industry’s largest greyhound operators in the nation. He owns and trains dogs in multiple states and runs the compound shared by South Florida’s racinos.

State regulators say it is illegal to use any anabolic steroids on racing dogs, but the state does not test for their presence when dogs are tested after a race.

“This calls into question the integrity of the race,’’ said Carey Thiel, executive director of GREY2K USA, a Massachusetts-based greyhound protection organization that monitors animal treatment in Florida. “We don’t know whether this was an attempt to prevent estrus (heat) in female greyhounds or enhance the performance in racing dogs — either of those are troubling.”

Dan Adkins, owner of Mardi Gras Racetrack and Casino in Hollywood, said he learned of the investigation on Thursday from a Herald/Times reporter.

“Congratulations. You beat the state,’’ he said. “We’re going to follow up on it and take whatever action is necessary.’’

Although the drugs were first discovered at the kennel in August, the state has not taken any disciplinary action against the trainer or the track. More here.   

January 16, 2014

No Casinos premiers its video talking points in Tallahassee theater

 

A group aimed at opposing the emergence of new casinos in Florida put its talking points into a slick new video documentary that premiered Wednesday for legislators at a Tallahassee theater.

No Casinos, the Orlando-based group which produced the movie-quality video, invited legislators and lobbyists to attend a showing of the video at the Tallahassee IMAX during the Legislature's committee week, complete with complimentary popcorn and sodas. In attendance were dozens of lobbyists, community members and a handful of legislators, most of whom are perceived to be opposed to the expansion of casinos.

Legislators are attempting to embark on a rewrite of Florida's hole-ridden gambling laws and decide for the third time whether to allow Las Vegas-style casinos into South Florida, where gambling giants Las Vegas Sands, Genting and Wynn Casinos are eager to set up shop.

The video begins with a brief history of gambling in Florida, including an interview with Florida historian Gary Mormino, and tracking many of the themes we wrote about in this story.

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January 11, 2014

Genting's promise, once vaunted, now under fire

@Doug_Hanks

The casino giant that promised a major boost to Miami’s economy now sees its business plans coming under fire on multiple fronts.

Genting, which three years ago proposed bringing a massive casino resort to the Miami waterfront, recently acquired a racetrack license it says allows for a modest 2,000-machine slot parlor on its land holdings. Its plans to start construction on a new hotel and condo complex at the old Miami Herald headquarters are now at least a year behind schedule. As Genting continues to tout gambling’s potential in Florida, it is making headlines for laying off 175 restaurant workers at its casino in New York.

The Malaysian-based company sued the federal government this fall in an effort to continue using foreign labor for a Miami-based casino ship offering overnight gambling cruises in international waters. On Friday, a federal judge ruled against Genting‘s request to overturn orders by immigration officials to either stop the cruises or hire U.S. workers as crew.

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January 07, 2014

Genting offers plan for a slots-only casino aimed at winning horse racing support

Miami Herald demolishedGenting Resorts World announced Monday that it wants to stake its fortunes on a scaled-back, slots-only resort on the Miami waterfront, a suggestion that the company may be prepared to sidetrack the glitzy destination resort that it planned two years ago.

Under the proposal, the Malaysian gambling company would enter into a four-way partnership that would allow it to use a permit owned by Gulfstream racetrack to open a slots casino at the Biscayne Bay property once owned by the Miami Herald.

If approved by legislators or state gambling regulators, the permit would allow Genting’s Resorts World Miami to open 2,000 slot machines and off-track betting. The proceeds would be used to augment thoroughbred purses at Gulfstream’s racetrack and go into a non-profit company to benefit the other partners: Florida horse breeders, owners and trainers. Genting and Gulfstream would keep some of the revenue as administrative fees.

“I think it’s game-changing,” said Lonny Powell, CEO of the Florida Thoroughbred Breeders and Owners Association. “This is the first partnership where the revenue stream and investment would actually go back into the horses.”

Gulfstream has argued that a permit it obtained last year for a non-profit subsidiary allows it to operate in both Miami-Dade and Broward counties because of property it owns that straddles the county line. But state regulators have rejected that interpretation and Genting would have to get legislators to clarify the law, get partimutuel regulators to change the ruling or take the matter to court to obtain the permit.

The concept is a “less lucrative option” than the $3.1 billion resort on 13.9 acres originally sought by the company in 2011, said Genting lobbyist Brian Ballard, but allows the company to work with the horseracing industry. More here.

Photo: Former Miami Herald building being dismantled