Broward County

House lawmakers agree to compromise to expand slots outside of South Florida

A poker hand at the World Poker Tour, at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in Hollywood in 2012.
A poker hand at the World Poker Tour, at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in Hollywood in 2012. MIAMI HERALD STAFF

In a long-shot bid to keep a gambling overhaul bill alive, the House Finance & Tax Committee sent a “love note to the Senate” on Monday, accepting its proposal to allow dog tracks to operate slot machines in at least five counties where voters have approved them.

The plan would require the governor to renegotiate the agreement he struck with the Seminole Tribe of Florida and would likely result in a lower guarantee of revenues than the $3 billion the tribe has already authorized.

It also means that one of Florida’s oldest industries, greyhound racing, would be replaced by slot machines in Palm Beach, Brevard, Gadsden, Lee and Washington counties. A handful of other counties could conduct voter referendums by January 2017 to be allowed to replace dog tracks, quarter-horse tracks or jai alai frontons with slot machines.

Only parimutuels within a 100-mile radius of the Seminoles’ most profitable facility — the Hard Rock Casino in Tampa — would be exempt from being able to seek voter approval for slot machines. That would likely affect parimutels such as Tampa Bay Downs, Tampa Bay Greyhound Track, St. Petersburg Kennel Club and Sarasota Kennel Club.

The compromise was an attempt by the House’s lead compact negotiator, Rep. José Félix Diaz, R-Miami, and the House Finance & Tax Committee chairman, Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach, to find a way to win enough votes for the compact in the Senate before lawmakers end the session in two weeks. Senate leaders have indicated that the deal may be too complicated to resolve with the time remaining. The House and Senate must approve the compact before it becomes law.

The Senate has long been willing to push back on the tribe’s monopoly in Florida in exchange for policies that help the declining parimutuel industry — 39 horse and dog tracks and jai alai frontons. But now House leaders appear more willing to resolve the issue and provide clarity to the perennial fight.

“While some of these changes are aspirational, some will have to be included in order to get the votes off the Senate floor,’’ Diaz told the committee before the vote.

The measure matches the Senate bill by authorizing a new slots facility in Miami-Dade County at a location to be selected through an open-bidding process.

The House proposal also makes the following changes to current law:

▪  Removes the live-racing requirement for all dog tracks as well as for harness racing and quarter-horse racing, and for thoroughbred racing at Calder Race Course, which is currently not operating live racing.

▪  Adds injury reporting requirements for dog tracks that continue to race greyhounds.

▪  Gulfstream Race Track and Tampa Bay Downs would continue to race and operate with enhanced purses. Tampa Bay Downs would get $10 million from the compact proceeds to enhance its racing purses, and both Tampa Bay Downs and Gulfstream in Hallandale Beach would get additional purse money from parimutuel tracks that run card rooms but discontinue dog racing.

▪  The bill allows the state to regulate fantasy sports in Florida, but only if the tribe allows it. The previous compact would have allowed the Seminole Tribe to operate Internet gaming, including fantasy sports, if the state were to authorize the games without their permission, Diaz said.

▪  Lowers the tax rate on current slots casinos from 35 percent to 30 percent and offers them the option of lowering it to 25 percent if they agree to reduce the number of slot machines from 2,000 to 1,700.

▪  Requires operators that conduct advanced deposit wagering to pay taxes on their proceeds.

The committee gave the bill bipartisan approval with a 12-5 vote, including winning the rare support of Orlando-area lawmakers who have traditionally rejected any gaming expansion because of its economic threat to the amusement park industry, namely Disney.

But Diaz said that an amendment included in the House bill on Monday helped to appease Disney’s concerns by clarifying that the Seminole Tribe cannot close one casino in one part of the state and move it to another, creating mega gaming sites.

“We asked Disney and the Seminoles to get together, and they did,’’ Diaz said. “They addressed that issue very clearly.”

But hurdles remain. The House wants a constitutional amendment put on the November ballot that would close the door to any future expansion of gambling without a voter referendum; the Senate has not proposed one. HJR 7113 passed both the House Regulatory Affairs Committee and Finance and Tax Committee by unanimous votes.

Diaz said the deal with Seminoles is likely to “create thousands of jobs” and bring “stability to an unsteady gaming environment” while giving the state “billions of dollars.”

He said that while the revenue guarantee is for the first seven years, the next 13 years of the 20-year compact could generate an estimated $6 billion more.  

Gaetz, the committee chairman who called the bill a “love note to the Florida Senate,” warned that since the tribe is in litigation with the state over allegations that there have already been breaches of the Seminole compact, failure to act could pose a “serious risk to the State of Florida because it is an open question as to whether or not games approved by the Department of Business and Professional Regulation violate the compact in its current form.”

Gaetz, who has long been an advocate for “decoupling,” or allowing parimutuels to operate slots and other gaming without racing, said the bill is overdue.

“I think it is barbaric that we require people to engage in greyhound racing that kills animals and has dogs running for their life with nobody watching,’’ he said.

The Senate Appropriations Committee will take up its two gaming proposals on Tuesday.

Mary Ellen Klas: meklas@miamiherald.com and @MaryEllenKlas

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