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House moves forward with a draft compact bill as posturing over future of gaming continues

As members of the Seminole Tribe arrive in Tallahassee today to continue to put pressure on lawmakers to approve the compact they've signed with the governor the posturing between the Legislature and the governor's office continues. 

House Regulatory Affairs Committee Chairman Jose Felix Diaz told the Herald/Times that he is drafting three bill relating to gaming, including one that tracks the governor's proposed compact with the Seminole Tribe -- to be released no sooner than next week. One bill would establish the parameters of the compact, another would apply to other parimutuel facilities and the third would be a constitutional amendment.

Meanwhile, the Senate President Andy Gardiner said Wednesday that "the compact is just a heavy lift" but expects a bill to come up in the Senate Regulated Industries Committee next week.

"It's never the compact, it's everything else that potentially comes with it that makes it a little bit of a challenge,'' Gardiner, R-Orlando, said. "Keep in mind we don't even budget for the compact now and even if we passed it, it doesn't come into effect until next year and wouldn't even have an impact. We'll find out next week because I think it will be up in committee and I think that will be an indication if we can even get it done.

Senate Regulated Industries Committee Chairman Rob Bradley, R-Fleming Island, was more circumspect Tuesday when he told Florida Politics that the bill remains in limbo.

“We may be hearing it next week, maybe the week after. We may not hear it at all,'' Bradley said. 

Diaz said the elements of the House bill at this point include:

* removing the requirement that greyhound tracks race dogs, known as decoupling;

* some "modified decoupling of horses -- there will be some that continue to race;"

* additional slot machines licenses in Palm Beach and Miami but limited to 750 slot machines at each facility;

* no additional black jack games at the pari-mutuels;

* tax decrease of 5 percent to 10 percent for pari-mutuel facilities in Miami-Dade and Broward and the new slots facility in Palm Beach; Diaz said he is also considering offering 5 percent decrease for all and another 5 percent decrease if they "turn in some slots" and reduce the number of slot stations they offer patrons from the 2,000 they are now allowed "that will help us make sense of the new slots that would come in Palm Beach and Miami"

* a separate bill putting a constitutional amendment on the November ballot requiring all future gambling expansion to receive statewide voter approval

"Some of the things that are allowed in the compact we will not put in there -- it will have to be a Legislature in the future or it gets amended to the initial draft,'' Daiz said.

He believes the proposal will be one that will pass the House but the first test will be his committee. "I think we can,'' he said.

Diaz added that while the financial benefits of the more than $300 million in annual revenues would be helpful to the budget, they are not influencing his decision about whether to complete compact legislation this session or not. Neither the House nor Senate have included compact revenues in their proposed budgets but are clearly using it as a leverage with the governor who is demanding a $1 billion tax cut package and $250 million in economic incentive money.

"I know that it's a lot of money because it's not just the new money that's in the new version of the compact, it's the money that's being held in escrow -- it could be as much as $500 million this year,'' Diaz said.

Overshadowing the Legislature's debate on the compact, is the Supreme Court review of a ruling related to Gretna Racing's challenge to the state's decision to reject its request for a slots license at its Gadsden County card room.

If the court sides with Gretna, "that would blow everything up,'' Diaz said, noting that he believes the Legislature could not take away what could become a "vested right" to run slot machines "without consequence."

"So part of what the compact will have is a Gretna fix" which would be clarification  that either the Legislature or the voters must approve any additional gambling license in Florida -- not only prospectively but retroactively.

That would mean that six additional counties in the state that have already conducted local referendums to approve slot machines would have to get lawmakers to amend the proposed compact legislation to include them or seek statewide approval, Diaz said, "which would be a big, big if."

Gadsden, Lee, Brevard, Hamilton, Palm Beach and Washington counties  have conducted local referendums and won voter approval to bring slot machines to their dog tracks and card rooms.

He added that if the Legislature finishes its session in March without a compact "there is always a chance we could be back here in a special session."

He said lawmakers can take one of two approaches to a court system expanding gambling: "One is they could go do a statewide vote or the Legislature fixes the statute and says you never should have had a referendum and now you can't even seek a statewide vote."