Pari-mutuels gain parity in gambling bill
A key Senate committee voted to allow pari-mutuels the same games and tax rates as casinos during the gambling bill’s first major test before the Florida Legislature.
Senate Bill 710, the controversial gaming bill, passed the Senate Regulated Industries Committee on Monday 7-3. It has more committees to stop in before the bill will hit the Senate floor, though.
BY MARY ELLEN KLAS
HERALD/TIMES TALLAHASSEE BUREAU
TALLAHASSEE — With a standing-room-only crowd of lobbyists watching Monday, a Florida Senate committee voted to bring destination resort casinos to Florida but only after allowing competing pari-mutuels to operate as full casinos with no additional investment or voter approval.
The Senate Regulated Industries Committee bowed to the pressures of the state’s existing gambling industry and attached an amendment to the controversial bill before passing it, 7-3. It was a dubious victory for the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Ellyn Bogdanoff, R-Fort Lauderdale.
The change, if it remains part of the measure, could serve as a poison pill to doom the bill, especially in the gambling-averse House, where the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Erik Fresen, R-Miami, said it would succeed only if it results in a net reduction of gaming in Florida.
The committee modified the bill by opening the door to allowing the same full-scale casino games at any pari-mutuel facility in Miami-Dade and Broward counties, and allow pari-mutuels to pay the same 10 percent tax rate that would be paid by the resort casinos. Pari-mutuels outside Miami-Dade and Broward would also be allowed to get slot machines if county voters approve.
The change forced Bogdanoff to admit that the measure would indeed expand gambling in the state.
“I’ve given up saying it’s not an expansion because I’ve lost that battle,” she said. “Call it what you will.”
The pari-mutuel amendment was added to Bogdanoff’s 170-page bill by Sen. Charlie Dean, R-Inverness, and Sen. Maria Sachs, D-Boca Raton. Bogdanoff had hoped to require the pari-mutuels to invest at least $125 million to win a casino permit, but the amendment took out that provision.
Bogdanoff said the change would subject the casinos at pari-mutuels to lighter regulations than those required of the destination resorts. The bill would create a new state agency to regulate all gambling, and create a state Gaming Control Commission to authorize three resort casino permits and impose strict new regulation for casino operators.
Despite the change, Dean voted against the bill. “I support the industry and the license-holders in this state,” he said. “I think we’re reaching way too far and are in too big a hurry.”
Bogdanoff countered that the amended bill would at least “stop the proliferation” of the kind of predatory gambling that now exists in Florida because it would put a halt to new pari-mutuel permits and regulate so-called Internet cafes and maquinitas — online slot rooms that have proliferated in strip shopping centers through a loophole in state law.
“This is the first time we will take a strategic direction on gaming,” she said.
Speaking against the bill was the Florida Sheriffs Association, John Sowinski of No Casinos — the Disney-backed effort opposing the bill — the Florida Attractions Association, the Southwest Florida-based Casino Watch, and the Florida Baptist Convention.
“This is not our Florida,” said Bill Bunkley, of the Florida Baptist Convention, urging senators to reject it because it would be “a legacy bill for each one of you and this legislature.”
The Florida Chamber of Commerce began running television ads opposing the bills on Monday, and created a website called BadBetForFlorida.com.
But also on Monday, a group of business groups sent a joint letter to legislators urging them to support the bill because of its potential to create jobs.
Speaking on behalf of the bill were lobbyists for the Associated Builders and Contractors and the National Federation of Independent Business.
Bogdanoff dismissed criticism that more gambling in Florida would ruin the state’s family-friendly image, but suggested that absent a better direction, the state would be consumed by predatory gaming.
“People do not go to South Beach to see Mickey Mouse,” she said. “We have the strip club capital of the world in Tampa. We have not ruined our family-friendly image.”
The bill will next go to the Senate Appropriations Committee, chaired by Sen. J.D. Alexander, R-Lake Wales, who opposes the bill.
Senate President Mike Haridopolos has said that he wants the proposal to come to a full vote on the Senate floor, but after Monday’s vote some legislators are urging him to reconsider that promise.
“I believe there’s better than a 50-50 chance this bill won’t pass,” said Sen. John Thrasher, R-Jacksonville, chairman of the Senate Rules Committee. He called it “the largest expansion of gaming in the United States” and voted against the bill.
Thrasher, a former lobbyist for Jacksonville Greyhound Racing, said he disagrees with Bogdanoff’s premise that the Legislature has let the pari-mutuel industry call the shots with the state. He said there is a need to close the loopholes that have allowed for the proliferation of online slot machine parlors and the creation of a barrel-racing permit to allow for a Gretna race track owner to get approval for slot machines.
Dan Adkins of Hartner and Tyner, owner of the Mardi Gras Casino and greyhound track in Hallandale Beach, said that despite the bill’s changes to accommodate the pari-mutuel industry, the measure continues to face “an uphill battle.” He predicted the Senate would let the measure stall until the House acts on it.
House sponsor Erik Fresen said he expects the bill to get a hearing in committee there next week.
Among the changes approved:
• Pari-mutuels in Miami-Dade and Broward County would be allowed to operate full casino games and get a 10 percent tax rate.
• Pari-mutuels would no longer be required to invest $125 million to convert their horse and dog track permits to full casino games, and they would be allowed to obtain their casino licenses using a different set of regulations.
• Pari-mutuels outside Miami-Dade and Broward would be allowed to get slot machines after July 7, 2015, or after the resort casinos start operating.
• Any county that puts a casino resort referendum on the ballot must also put on the ballot a question relating to expanding the casino to any pari-mutuels located in the same county.