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House committee votes to authorize slot machines in two more counties

CasinoThe ice is melting on Florida’s gambling debate. 

After being frozen in inaction for the last several years because of powerful competing interests, House and Senate committees this week approved legislation to end the requirement that greyhound tracks race dogs, and opened the door to the expansion of slot machines at Palm Beach and Lee counties.

The House on Thursday moved the debate even farther when the GOP-dominated Regulated Industries Committee also voted to require Miami-Dade and Broward counties to conduct either a local referendum, or an affirmative vote of the county commission, to determine whether legislators should authorize destination resort casinos there.

The local vote is intended to give cover to reluctant lawmakers to approve the plan to bring Las Vegas style resort casinos into South Florida to compete with the Seminole Tribe’s Hard Rock resort. The vote would have to be conducted by Dec. 31, in time to bring the issue back to the legislature when it meets in regular session starting January next year.

But steep hurdles remain.

The House proposal also would require the state to either abandon the $250 million in annual payments the tribe now sends the state, or renegotiate the gaming compact with the tribe.

The portion of that agreement that gives the Seminole Tribe the exclusive right to operate black jack and other card games expires July 31. While the governor is responsible for negotiating the compact, the Florida Legislature must ratify it, and talks between them have broken down.

“As we sit here today, there is nothing taking place in the House in regard to that issue,’’ said House Speaker Steve Crisafulli, R-Merritt Island on Thursday.

Despite the obstacles, the similarities between the proposals were a sign that both chambers may have reached an accord on the traditionally controversial issues.

The Senate Regulated Industries Committee gave preliminary approval to its bill, SB 7088, on Wednesday and loaded it up with new gaming provisions, including ending the racing requirement for not just dog tracks but horse tracks and jai alai frontons. And the House Regulated Industries Committee voted 14-4 for HB 1233 on Thursday, after it was amended from a narrowly-drafted proposal to remove the mandate for dog racing at greyhound tracks to include new slot machines at two additional counties.

Both bills include:

Allowing dog tracks at the Palm Beach Kennel Club and the Naples/Fort Myers Greyhound Track in Bonita Springs to convert their operations into slots casinos. Both of those communities approved separate ballot referendums in 2012 seeking voter approval for the games.

Requiring 10 percent of the tax revenue collected from the slots operations in Palm Beach and Lee counties to subsidize purses for horse racing at Tampa Bay Downs. (The Senate proposal also gives the remaining 90 percent to the Seminole Tribe as an enticement for them to agree to the added games as part of the compact.)

Ending the requirement that the remaining 12 active greyhound tracks conduct live racing in order to operate the more lucrative poker rooms or slot machines.

The House bill, by Rep. Dana Young, R-Tampa, also attempts to end the passive expansion of gambling that has occurred under current law by terminating "dormant" and “portable” pari-mutuel permits and imposing a moratorium on the issuance of any new permits.

Several members of the traditionally anti-gambling House justified their vote in favor of the bill by explaining that bringing slot machines to two additional counties was not an expansion of gambling in Florida but an extension of the existing law. Currentlly, slot machines are authorized only at the eight parimutuel facilities in Miami-Dade and Broward counties.

"There is already a footprint of gaming,'' said Rep. Ritch Workman, R-Melbourne, who sponsored the amendment. "We are not authorizing new gaming. We are authorizing them to compete with facilities right down the street."

However, Workman did not mention that it is 47 miles between the Palm Beach Kennel Club and the nearest slots casino, the Isle Casino at Pompano Park, and it is 119 miles between the Bonita Springs race track and its closest competitor, the Mardi Gras Casino in Hollywood.

Workman's reasoning was echoed by Crisafulli and Young.

“I do not support the expansion of gambling here in my beloved state of Florida,’’ Young told the committee. “This bill does not do that. This bill contracts gaming."

Opponents argued the bill not only expands gaming in the state, it violates the constitutional requirement that any "lottery" must receive statewide voter approval.

"The Constitution applies to the entire State of Florida. It doesn't pick counties it applies to,'' argued Rep. John Wood, R-Winter Haven. "To change the Constitution requires the approval of the entire electorate of the state."

But even among gaming lobbyists, adding slot machines outside of Miami Dade and Broward is considered expanded gambling.

On Wednesday Sen. Joe Abruzzo offered a similar amendment to Workman's and he described it by saying it "does not expand gaming."

The room, packed with lobbyists, erupted into laughter.

“I really do not believe it does and I’ll tell you why,’’ Abruzzo replied. “This does not authorize any new locations that do not currently have games.” Palm Beach Kennel Club and the Naples/Fort Myers Greyhound track currently operate poker rooms.