Florida Legislature Extends Session

Horse racing and pari-mutuel bills and Indian gaming to be considered.

The Florida Legislature May 1 extended its annual regular session for seven days, with pending bills on Thoroughbred and other pari-mutuel issues and on Indian gaming among unfinished business.

Over the weekend of May 2-3, leaders of the Senate and House continued negotiations on their widely divergent bills on the issue of whether the Seminole Tribe of Florida should be permitted to keep blackjack and baccarat tables at its casinos. Both houses also are considering general gaming bills, with provisions saying they would take effect only if the legislature approves a Seminole bill (related story).

Marc Dunbar, a lobbyist who represents Gulfstream Park and its parent Magna Entertainment Corp., said May 3 he is “optimistic that both houses will recognize the importance of a vibrant Thoroughbred industry” in Florida. Dunbar, a partner in the Pennington Law Firm in Tallahassee, Fla., would  not speculate on whether the legislature would approve a bill on Seminole gaming and a wider gaming bill.

Each house’s wider bill would reduce the state tax rate from 50% to 35% on revenue from Class III Las Vegas style slot machines at pari-mutuel casinos in Miami-Dade and Broward counties. Gulfstream is one of three Broward pari-mutuels with a casino. Calder Race Course, in Miami-Dade, plans to build a casino that would open in January 2010.

Those are the only two Florida counties in which Thoroughbred, harness, and Greyhound tracks and jai-alai frontons can have casinos and slot machines.

The Seminoles last year put blackjack and baccarat tables in three casinos. They are the only Florida casinos operating those games, even though the Supreme Court of Florida last July ruled they are illegal in Florida. The court overturned a 2007 compact signed by Gov. Charlie Crist, who did not seek the legislature’s approval, that authorized those games for the Seminoles.

As part of the compact, the Seminoles agreed to make their first payments from gaming revenue to the state. The payments started at $100 million last year, with an agreement for ongoing increases.

This year’s debate on how to revise that compact centers around Senate leaders’ goal of retaining Seminole gaming revenue for the state and House leaders’ opposition to expansion of gambling.

A House bill would require the Seminoles to take blackjack and baccarat tables out of all of their casinos. But in a compromise move May 1, House leaders said they would permit the Seminoles to keep those games at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Hollywood, a city in Broward County, and install them at a casino in Coconut Creek, also in Broward.

Those would be the only two of the Seminole’s seven casinos where the House would permit the two table games. It would require the tribe to remove them from casinos in Tampa and from Immokalee, near Naples.

The House proposal does not include several provisions in a Seminole compact bill the Senate passed in late April. The Senate would permit the Seminoles to have blackjack and roulette, and put in roulette and craps tables at all of their casinos.

As a trade-off, the Senate would allow Miami-Dade and Broward pari-mutuels to add blackjack and baccarat. The Senate also would permit Tampa Bay Downs and other pari-mutuels outside Miami-Dade and Broward to install Class II bingo-like slot machines.

The legislature’s decision on what gaming products the Seminoles can offer will be important for the three Florida Thoroughbred tracks’ operating plans. Gulfstream and Calder compete for gaming dollars with the Seminole casino in Hollywood. Tampa Bay Downs competes for gaming dollars with the Seminole casino in Tampa.