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House also creates gaming committee, puts Schenck in charge

House Speaker Will Weatherford on Monday followed the lead of the Senate and announced the creation of a Select Committee on Gaming to study the path of the state into the perilous territory of gambling reform.

Named to head the effort: Rep. Rob Schenck, R-Spring Hill, who also serves as Weatherford's powerful Rules Committee chair.

“The House Select Committee on Gaming will be charged with looking Florida’s gaming activity holistically to determine ways to improve the state’s oversight of the industry,” Weatherford said in a statement. “Under Representative Schenck’s leadership, I’m confident we can determine what changes – if any – are needed to develop a comprehensive policy for gaming in Florida.”

Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, has created a similar committee and assigned Sen. Garrett Richter, R-Naples, to head it. Richter, a newcomer to gambling regulation issues, has decided to move ahead by the end of February to hire an outside consultant to do a study of the impact of gaming in Florida and assess what economic and revenue impact any changes would have. 

Weatherford has agreed to split the cost of the study -- which Richter estimates could be as high as $400,000. His statement said the goal of the committee will be to establish a "unified, long-term policy for the future of gaming in Florida that serves the best interest of all Floridians" by the 2014 session.

Gambling issues have traditionallly been one of the most perilous hot potato issues for lawmakers to handle.

Legislators in both urban and rural areas of the state represent legacy parimutuel industries of horse and dog racing whose owners perenially ask the state to expand their gaming options to include the now-popular slot machines in order to preserve the jobs and revenue from their declining industries.

But legislative leaders and Gov. Rick Scott have also acknowledged the appeal of the resort-gaming industry, led by the Las Vegas Sands and Genting, which promise handsome tax revenues and swanky resorts if the state allows them to bring full casinos to South Florida. 

Finding the balance between the two arguments -- as well as deciding what to do with the exploding growth of Internet cafes and online poker -- has been stumped lawmakers in the last three legislative sessions.

Adding urgency to this issue now is the state's gambling compact with the Seminole Tribe of Florida, which expires in 2015. Gaetz and Weatherford have acknowledged that they plan to renew or alter that before their terms end in 2014. 

“Gaming is an issue that requires a careful consideration of existing law before any decisions are made regarding the industry’s future in Florida,” Schenck said in the statement.  “I look forward to conducting a comprehensive review to set a long term vision for the future of gaming in Florida.”