Florida House proposes overhauling gambling regulations, but no new casinos

The Florida House weighed in on the gambling debate Monday and proposed a bill that would not authorize new casinos but would overhaul the state’s gambling laws, putting all regulation of racetracks, slot machines and poker rooms under a Gaming Control Commission similar to those in other large gaming states.

Unlike a similar Senate plan, which would overhaul regulation and also authorize new casino resorts in Miami-Dade and Broward counties, the House plan would leave the decision to introduce mega-casinos in Florida to the governor.

The governor could approve or reject the casinos when he negotiates a new gaming compact with the Seminole Tribe of Florida. The governor has until July 2015 to renegotiate a portion of the 20-year compact that applies to the tribe’s exclusive right to operate table games such as blackjack and baccarat at its South Florida casinos.

The House also drafted a constitutional amendment that would require voters to approve any expansion of gambling that is not approved by legislators this year. The measure could close the door to future gambling expansion because 60 percent of voters statewide would have to approve of any new venture.

That provision would offer a measure of economic security to those in business now. It also attempts to win the support of gambling opponents who see it as a permanent limit on expanded gambling.

The Senate has also proposed a constitutional amendment to give voters the authority to limit future games, but the House proposal would be more restrictive.

The thrust of the House proposals — which were being finalized late Monday — follows the initiative announced last week by the Senate to revamp the way gambling is regulated.

The primary House bill, filed by Rep. Rob Schenck, R-Spring Hill, the head of the House Gaming Committee, would create a Gaming Control Commission that would regulate all gaming in the state except the Florida Lottery. It is similar to the Senate plan to create a state Gaming Control Board.

Unlike the Senate gaming board, which would consist of five members appointed by the governor, the House gaming commission would be composed of five members appointed by the governor from a list of candidates chosen by a legislatively controlled nominating commission.

The move by the House came on the last day members could file individual bills and as the Senate launched its debate over bringing two casino resorts to South Florida.

The Senate Gaming Committee discussed, but did not vote, on its three proposals to allow Las Vegas’ casino giants to move into the state under the regulation of the new state gaming-control agency.

"We’re getting ready to roll the dice,” said Sen. Garrett Richter, R-Naples, chairman of the Senate Gaming Committee, as he began his summary of the package of bills.

The industry-friendly committee is the first stop in the Senate, where gambling interests have traditionally received a warmer welcome than in the House. The Senate bill, for example, would reward three of the largest donors to legislative political committees in the state — Genting/Resorts World, which has spent more than $1.2 million on legislators this election cycle, Las Vegas Sands and the Seminole Tribe.

The Senate bill would not authorize the expansion of slot machines to six counties outside of Miami-Dade and Broward that have passed local referenda to allow them, Richter said, but instead clarifies an attorney general’s opinion that rejected local referenda as a viable way to expand the presence of slot machines in Florida.

Richter said he chose not to give those regions slot machines because it would end the state’s revenue-sharing compact with the Seminoles. The current agreement, in force through 2030, requires the tribe to share revenue with the state as long as it has the exclusive right to operate slot machines outside Miami-Dade and Broward.

Sen. Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, an opponent of gambling expansion, said the bill is designed to imply that it will attract tourists from outside Florida by including convention centers, entertainment and tourism options in addition to casinos without including a definition of “destination resort.” He said evidence shows that 80 percent of the business from the new casinos will come from local residents while only 20 percent will come from outside the community.

Sen. John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, said he doubts the additional casinos would add to the state economy, and would be an unnecessary expansion of gambling.

Richter responded that he doesn’t consider the addition of two casinos “an expansion of gambling” but an “expansion of commerce.” He also noted that if the Senate bill passes, the state is “at least five years away from the first destination casino opening its doors.”

Sen. Jack Latvala, R-St. Petersburg, said that with gambling already widespread in Florida, the goal should be to strengthen the current options in a way that allows them to create more jobs. He pointed to the resurgence of Hialeah Race Course, which now offers quarterhorse races and used slot machines to finance its resurgence.

“To me, the decision here is not whether we are going to expand gambling. The decision here is whether we are going to protect a monopoly that a sovereign nation has,” Latvala said, referring to the Seminole Tribe and the casinos it operates throughout the state.

Provisions of the Senate bill include:

• Creating a Joint Legislative Gaming Control Oversight Committee composed of seven senators and seven House members that would have oversight over all gambling operations, including the Department of the Lottery. The committee would meet quarterly and oversee anything, including sales and advertising, and make written recommendations if it determines additional legislation is warranted.

• Requiring the new casinos to devote no more than 10 percent of their real estate footprint to gaming, and casino operators to spend $2 billion on the investment, not including the real estate purchase.

• Requiring applicants for the new casino licenses to pay a refundable $125 million fee and a $1 million investigation fee. They would also be required to spend $250,000 a year on preventing compulsive gambling.

• Taxing the new casinos at a rate of 35 percent.