by Jim Freer
Two bills that would help Thoroughbred racetracks, the Ocala Breeders’ Sales Co., and the state’s other pari-mutuel facilities will be on the calendar when the Florida legislature begins its annual two-month session March 4.
Democratic Sen. Steve Geller is sponsor of Senate Bill 970, which would reduce the state tax rate from 50% to 35% on Class III Las Vegas-style machines at horse and Greyhound tracks and jai-alai frontons in Broward and Miami-Dade counties.
Gulfstream Park is among three Broward County pari-mutuel facilities with slot machines. Calder Race Course is one of three in Miami-Dade County that plan to open casinos following a Jan. 29 county referendum that permitted them. Calder parent Churchill Downs Inc. has said it might announce initial plans for a Calder casino this month, when it releases its 2007 earnings report.
Republican Sen. Dennis Jones is sponsor of Senate Bill 1380, which would permit OBS and Tampa Bay Downs to install “electronic gaming machines” similar to Class II bingo-like slot machines.
Eighteen other pari-mutuel facilities outside the two South Florida counties also would be permitted to install those machines. Along with the two Thoroughbred sites, they would pay a state tax of 35% on slots revenue.
As with several slots bills that did not pass this decade, opposition could be strong from several House leaders and other legislators who oppose expansion of gambling. But Geller, Jones, and prominent lobbyist Ron Book, who represents two Greyhound tracks, anticipate that Florida’s budget crunch could lead some former opponents to support the 2008 slots bills.
Amid a slumping economy and real estate market, Gov. Charlie Crist and the legislature are considering cuts of some educational and health services. “These are proposals that would help us start raising revenues,” Book said.
However, lower-than-projected slots revenue at Broward County pari-mutuel outlets and expanded competition from tribal casinos are causing concerns about the potential viability of more pari-mutuel casinos. During a Feb. 27 earnings call, Las Vegas-based Boyd Gaming said it has indefinitely postponed plans to build a casino at its Dania Jai-Alai in Broward County. Boyd said a reduction of the state slots tax rate is among factors that could influence its plans.
Book, Geller, and Jones maintain that lowering the tax rate for Gulfstream and other facilities would enable them to spend more retained earnings on marketing and improvements and eventual expansion of casinos. That change, they say, would help them compete more effectively with the Seminole Tribe of Florida.
This year, the Seminoles are beginning their first payments of a portion of slots revenue to the state. The payments, starting at about 10% of what analysts estimate for their slots revenue, are part of a compact the Seminoles signed last November with Crist.
The agreement, which is being challenged by the legislature in the Supreme Court of Florida, permits the tribe to upgrade from Class II to Class III machines at seven Florida casinos.
The Senate’s research staff has estimated that during a first full year with a maximum of 2,000 machines per site, 20 new pari-mutuel casinos would generate combined state tax revenue of $500 million.
Even if the numbers aren’t that high, Jones said Florida “should not pass up this opportunity to expand revenues and add jobs.” New casinos would generate business from numerous Floridians who travel to casinos in other states, he said.
Jones’ district includes Derby Lane Greyhound track in St. Petersburg. Tampa Bay Downs in Oldsmar is in the adjacent district of Republican Sen. Mike Fasano. Jones is chairman of the Senate Regulated Industries Committee, with initial jurisdiction over pari-mutuel bills.
The bill sponsored by Geller, leader of the Senate Democratic minority, has “hold harmless” provisions that guarantee various minimum annual payments by Broward and Miami-Dade pari-mutuel facilities if their slots tax rate is 35%. That provision for existing casinos “makes me quite confident the bill will pass the Senate, but I cannot say whether it will be brought up in the (full) House,” Geller said.
Geller said he is “confident, but less so about Sen. Jones’ bill because some (legislators) will stress that it expands gambling” even though it provides a new source of tax revenue. Last year, the Senate passed but the House did not vote on a bill similar to Jones’ current bill.
House Speaker Marco Rubio (R-West Miami) opposes expansion of gambling. But Rubio “realizes he is one of 120 House members” and would not use his position to deter votes on issues that have support of the House majority, said his spokeswoman Jill Chamberlin.
Republican Senate Majority Leader Ken Pruitt has a clear stand on slot machines. Pruitt voted for Jones’ bill last year, and “has indicated he will follow the lead of the chairman of the Senate Regulate Industries Committee should the bill come to the floor again this year,” said his spokeswoman, Kathy Mears.
In pre-session meetings, Senate committees approved the bills and sent them to the full Senate.
Democratic Rep. John Seiler has introduced House Bill 1241, similar to Geller’s bill on existing casinos. As of March 3, no bills similar to Jones’ were introduced in the House.
A Seminole Tribe spokesman did not return calls seeking comment on the developments. Geller said he expects the Seminoles, who are focusing on their own expansion and legal issues, will not support or oppose either bill.
Book’s role looms as a plus for the racetracks and frontons. Book is a registered lobbyist for West Flagler Greyhounds. That company owns Flagler Dog Track in Miami, which is preparing to build a casino, and Naples-Fort Myers Greyhound Track in Bonita Springs.
Dolphins Stadium and several Florida cities and counties are among Book’s clients. He helped map strategy for Broward and Miami-Dade racetracks and frontons in the 2004 statewide election that authorized the two counties’ votes on slot machines.