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House and Senate have opened the board on gaming bill and differences are vast

GamblingFlorida House and Senate committees on Thursday gave approval to vastly different approaches to the future of gambling in Florida, with the Senate opening the door to massive expansion of slot machines and Indian gaming, while the House attempts to retract gaming and preserve protected markets for horse and dog racing and tribal gaming for another 20 years.

The House bill, PCB TGC 17-01, "reaffirms our commitment to a limited gaming footprint," said Rep. Michael LaRosa, R-St. Cloud, chair of the Tourism & Gaming Control Subcommittee which passed its bill 10-5.

"It also keeps the Legislature in charge" of the future of gaming, he said, an attempt to halt the expansion of gambling that has occurred in recent years as lawmakers failed to close loopholes and clarify the law in the face of court rulings.

By contrast, the Senate bill would give Miami-Dade and Broward counties each an additional slot casino, the Seminole Tribe would have seven full-scale casinos, and horse and dog tracks in at least eight counties would get new slot parlors.

The measures are seen as the first pieces in a lengthy session-long negotiation expected to guarantee the state an estimate $250 million ot $300 million in annual revenues from the Seminole Tribe and to clarify the state’s now-porous gaming laws that have been weakened by legal challenges, court rulings and numerous loopholes.

"Were going to pass a gaming bill” that ties the compact to “massive contraction,’’ predicted House Speaker Richard Corcoran in an interview Wednesday with the Herald/Times Tallahassee bureau. “I can assure you the face of gaming is a massive contraction and those people who have abused the system, abused the power of the special interests to get things in law that should never have been in law, will suffer the consequences.’’

Under the House bill, the state would reenact the current gaming compact that gives the Seminole Tribe the exclusive right to slot machines outside of Miami-Dade and Broward and blackjack at their South Florida casinos in exchange for $3 billion in payments to the state over seven years.

The bill would ban pari-mutuels from adding slot machines in the eight counties where voters have authorized the games -- Brevard, Duval, Gadsden, Lee, Hamilton, Palm Beach, St. Lucie and Washington counties. It also reverses court rulings that have allowed pari-mutuels to operate designated-player games -- popular alternatives to poker in many card rooms throughout the state.

And the House also serves to advance Corcoran's goal of expanding charter schools by dedicating one third of the estimated $400 million a year of proceeds from the Seminole compact to charter schools, including those operated by for-profit corporations. Another third of the money would go to teacher bonuses, recruitment and training, and a final third would go toward Senate President Joe Negron's priority of improving higher education to recruit and retain distinguished faculty.

The Senate’s competing plan, SB 8 by Sen. Bill Galvano, a Bradenton Republican, passed the Senate Appropriations Committee 14-2 and will be voted on by the full Senate in the first week of the legislative session that begins March 7.

The Senate plan would make it possible for Genting, the Malaysian company, to build its long-sought resorts casino in Miami. It would help the declining horse and dog racing and jai-alai industries by allowing them to stop racing and operate as slot casinos exclusively. And, for the fantasy sports operators, the Senate bill would impose regulations and require them a permit to operate.

The most controversial element of the House bill is the provision that prohibits so-called "decoupling,'' the notion that horse and dog tracks like Magic City and Mardi Gras could discontinue racing in order to operate card games and slot machines. Under the provision, tracks that failed to race at the levels required in 1998 -- when racing dogs and horses was more popular with the public -- could lose their permits and if the state allowed them to stop racing it would forfeit the revenues from the Seminole compact.

By contrast, the Senate bill allows decoupling of both horse and dog racing and jai alai frontons and revokes dormant permits not used by the industry.

Opponents of the House bill argued that the racing provision was a corporate mandate designed to use government policy to protect a declining industry.

"This is not free market,'' said Rep. Jared Moskowitz, D-Coral Springs. "The winner is the Seminoles, large business...while losers are everybody else in the industry." He called the bill a waste of time because it will be rejected by the Senate and said he will fight it vigorously until the House finds a middle ground.

"It's a die on the sword moment for me,'' he said. "This bill is not worth the paper it's written on. It's not serious and yet we are wasting taxpayer money...I don't care if my bills get killed or my appropriations get wiped out.”

Rep. Mike LaRosa, R-St. Cloud, chairman of the House gaming committee, countered that "gambling is actually illegal, unless it's authorized so to try to take a free market approach doesn't exactly equate.” He did not address the issue of requiring tracks to race

He later said he would be open to discussing the issue further with Moskowitz but said the idea of gaming expansion is "a non-starter here in the House."

While the Senate protects the pari-mutuel industry, the House's proposal protects the tribe and the horse and dog breeders.

Galvano said he was not surprised at the stark differences in the House bill and conceded the Senate plan extracts more from the tribe than the current compact, but he said wants to keep each issue moving in order to prevent the issue from stalling as it has for the last two years.

"Now it's time to get it reeled in,'' he said. If the tribe "wants to adjust the number, then make the offer..But as far as I'm concerned, the ball is in their court.''