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House committee workshops gambling plan but progress looks dim

The odds of passing a sweeping rewrite of the state’s gambling laws appeared to dim Thursday as a House committee began debate on a draft proposal to expand gambling in Florida and ended with no commitment to take up the bill for a vote.

Meanwhile, progress appeared to be occurring on another gambling debate -- behind closed doors – as key lawmakers confirmed they continue to talk about renewing the portion of the gaming compact with the Seminole Tribe that expires in July.

“I would describe our discussions as having been more detailed than they have perhaps been in the past,’’ said Sen. Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, the chairman of the Senate Regulated Industries Committee.

He said that he has been in meeting with tribal negotiators “over the past several days” as the Seminoles discuss renewing their exclusive agreement with the state to operate black jack and other banked card games in return for an estimated $136 million in revenue sharing each year.

“We’ll continue those discussions with the Tribe and see if there can be a meeting of minds with regards to what the parameters will be,” Bradley told reporters.

Also in discussions with the Seminole Tribe is House Republican Leader Dana Young, R-Tampa, the sponsor of the sweeping House bill that opens the door to destination resorts in Miami Dade and Broward.

Bradley said the Senate is awaiting word on the progress of Young's bill, after the House Regulatory Affairs Committee conducted a four-hour workshop with no progress on advancing the bill.

Young’s proposal, HB 1233, provides a framework for expanding some gambling operations while contracting others. It phases out dog racing and unused racing permits, caps any future gaming expansion, ends tax credits for pari-mutuels, and requires the creation of a state gaming commission to provide streamlined oversight of the industry.

“Clearly, this is a big bill,’’ Young told the committee.

Committee chairman, Rep. Jose Felix Diaz, R-Miami, said the committee will not take up any gambling legislation for another two weeks, leaving the final two weeks of the 60-day session for proponents win the votes in the conservative House for expanding gaming -- and then negotiating a compromise with the Senate.

Young acknowledged after the meeting that the complicated nature of the gaming laws, and the intense interest of the heavily-invested pari-mutuel and casino industries, will keep the bill alive until the final days of the session.

“This is a gaming bill and gaming bills never come up until the last couple days of session,’’ she said.

Young wouldn’t predict whether she could muster enough votes among the Republican majority in the House to pass her bill or whether she would have to rely on votes from South Florida Democrats.

“I’m not going to handicap the vote for you right now,’’ she said.

Bradley would not comment on Young's bill but hinted that he is no fan of expanded gaming.

"We're doing pretty well as the vacation capital of the world without turning into another Las Vegas,'' he said.

He said the Senate has put its focus on talking with the Seminoles because "you have to start somewhere" and the card games provision expires this year.

In their proposed budgets for next year, neither Gov. Rick Scott nor the House and Senate have included any of the revenue currently raised by the state for allowing the Seminoles to operate black jack, chemin de fer and baccarat at five of their seven casinos, including the Hard Rock in Hollywood and Tampa.

The current agreement, which gives the Tribe exclusive operation of slot machines outside of Miami Dade and Broward, continues for another 15 years while only the card games expire.

Young acknowledged that the House bill does not address the Seminole compact “because we are not there yet with the Tribe. We’re still talking with them.”

The Tribe has said it wants to continue the card games because they attract high-stake gamblers from Asia and the Middle East to the more lucrative slot machine games.

To help lobby for its cause, the Tribe has paid for three statewide television ads, a statewide poll, that showed that most voters support continuing the gaming compact and launched an aggressive lobbying campaign.

The committee heard testimony from Marc Dunbar, an expert on gaming law and a lobbyist for Gulfstream Racetrack in Hollywood, who urged lawmakers to renew the existing compact to provide stability to the gaming market in Florida.

He warned that if the state fails to renew the card games, the state has little authority to shut them down.

“They will continue to deal blackjack and you will litigate them for several years while you continue to shut them down,’’ he said.

Under the 2010 compact, the Tribe could be subject to a federal court injunction if doesn’t remove the card games in 90 days. But Dunbar said that provision “is very soft and not correctly drafted” and would likely draw a lawsuit that could go on for years.

“It has a lot to do with the fact that the state has legalized other slot machine technologies – roulette, craps, black jack – and left unresolved what that means,” Dunbar said.

Under the federal Indian gaming law, tribes are entitled to offer the same games offered by the state. Although some of the state’s racinos operate games that look like roulette and craps using slot-machine technology, the Seminole Tribe has not challenged Florida's handling of that provision in court.

“The reason they haven't is it allows them to litigate this issue,’’ Dunbar said. “They’ll litigate this issue for six or seven years.”

But Young disagreed, saying she was confident in the language in the agreement with the state which forces the Tribe to remove the card games under federal court order.