Deadline Approaches on Florida Gaming Issues
by Jim Freer
Date Posted: 4/29/2009 8:36:26 AM
Last Updated: 5/1/2009 12:40:47 PM

The Florida Legislature will end its annual regular session May 1, and as of April 28 the House and Senate had not resolved major gaming issues including whether the Seminole Tribe of Florida should be able to keep blackjack and baccarat tables at its casinos.
 
General gaming bills under consideration in each house contain several favorable provisions for the state’s Thoroughbred tracks -- including reduction of the 50% state tax rate on revenues from Las Vegas-style slot machines at Gulfstream Park’s casino and at a casino Calder Race Course plans to build.
 
The overriding closing days’ issue, however, is that the Senate and House have widely different bills on Seminole gaming. And both houses’ general gaming bills have provisions saying they would take effect only if the Legislature approves a Seminole bill.

Marc Dunbar, a lobbyist who represents Gulfstream and its parent Magna Entertainment Corp., said April 28 that there is wide expectation that the full Legislature will not approve a Seminole and/or gaming bill until May 1.
 
The Legislature always ends its eight-week session the first Friday in May. If it does not pass a Seminole bill, some observers expect it will take up that issue in a special session later this spring.
 
In published reports early in the week of April 27, leaders of the House and Senate indicated little willingness to compromise on the contentious Seminole issue.
 
The Senate, with a goal of expanding the state’s revenue from Seminole gaming, has passed a bill that would permit the Tribe to keep blackjack and baccarat.
 
The Senate bill also would allow the Seminoles to add roulette and craps tables at their casinos. In addition, the bill would permit pari-mutuel casinos in Miami-Dade and Broward counties to add blackjack and baccarat. Calder is in Miami-Dade and Gulfstream is in Broward.
 
As of April 28, it was widely expected that the House would pass a bill that would require the Seminoles to remove their blackjack and baccarat tables. That bill would not permit any additional gaming products for the Seminoles or for pari-mutuels in the two South Florida counties.
 
Both houses are attempting to revise a compact that Gov. Charlie Crist and the Seminoles signed in November 2007 but was later declared invalid by the Supreme Court of Florida in July 2008.
 
The compact permitted the Seminoles to upgrade from Class II bingo-like slot machines to Class III machines at their seven Florida casinos. It also gave the Tribe exclusive rights to blackjack and baccarat in Florida.
 
In return, the Seminoles agreed to begin paying the state a portion of their gaming revenues. That began with $100 million last year, and is scheduled to increase at percentage rates.

The House sued Crist, contending that he overstepped his authority by not including the Legislature in negotiations. The court declared the compact void, saying that Crist did not have authority to approve blackjack or other new gaming in Florida.
 
The Seminoles, a sovereign nation, have continued to operate blackjack and baccarat at three casinos. One competes with Calder and Gulfstream for gaming dollars, and another competes with Tampa Bay Downs.

The House has passed a general gaming bill and as of April 28, the Senate was expected to pass a bill that has been approved in several of its committees. The bills have several differences--but to a lesser extent than differences in the Seminole bills. 
 
But with bills on tax and property insurance issues still being debated, there is a prospect that conferees might not work on gaming bills prior to the session’s deadline.
 
Major provisions in one or both bills include:
 
* Reducing the Miami-Dade and Broward casinos’ slots tax rate. The Senate would reduce the rate to 42% beginning July 1, 2010 and to 35% in subsequent years. The House would reduce the rate to 36% -- pending enactment of a Seminole bill that would set an 18% slots tax rate for the Tribe.
 
* Permitting all pari-mutuels to expand card room hours from 12 to 24 per day, and raising poker betting limits from $5 to $50.
 
* Allowing Tampa Bay Downs and other pari-mutuels outside Miami-Dade and Broward to have Class II bingo-like slot machines.
 
* Easing the rules under which Quarter Horse tracks (none are yet operating in Florida) could also hold Thoroughbred races. That would benefit the now-closed Hialeah Park, which March 16 was granted a Quarter Horse permit by the Florida Division of Pari-Mutuel Wagering.
 
* Allow Thoroughbred tracks to hold night racing.
 
* Authorize the establishment of a Thoroughbred meet with wagering for a non-profit entity, namely the Ocala Breeders’ Sales Co., with profits earmarked for purses and breeders and stallions awards.
 
Dunbar said Gulfstream regards the proposals on slot machine taxes, night racing and poker hours as very important for its operations and sees benefits for the Thoroughbred industry in the OBS-related proposal.
 
He said Gulfstream is not opposing the proposed changes that could let Hialeah, closed since 2001, ease back into Thoroughbred racing.
 
“That (Hialeah) is not an immediate issue,” Dunbar said. “They would have a long way to go to get started. We are focusing on the proposed changes that would directly benefit Gulfstream.”
 
Officials of Tampa Bay Downs and a lobbyist who represents Calder did not return phone calls.

 



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