Slots, Indian Gaming on Florida Agenda

Changes also sought in tax structure off racetrack slots.

The Florida Legislature will begin its annual two-month session on March 3, with the state’s Thoroughbred tracks and other pari-mutuels seeking changes in a gaming compact that Gov. Charlie Crist and the Seminole Tribe of Florida signed in 2007.
Florida pari-mutuels also will ask for changes in the tax structure on slot machines at casinos in Miami-Dade and Broward counties.
Some pari-mutuel officials are hopeful that in 2009, unlike the past several years, those kinds of proposals will not be stalled in the House of Representatives.
This year’s House Speaker is Rep. Larry Cretul, a Republican from Ocala.
Cretul’s spokesman Jill Chamberlin said he “is a strong supporter of the state’s horse industry. But he does not let one industry determine his position on issues.”
Gulfstream Park and two other South Florida pari-mutuels have casinos that pay a state tax of 50% of  revenues on their Class III Las Vegas-style slot machines. With Florida facing a $2.3 billion budget deficit, industry officials anticipate that, as in previous years, it will be difficult to convince the Legislature to reduce a tax rate on gaming businesses.
So, they hope legislators will introduce bills that would permit deducting some casino operations’ costs from taxable income, while also obtaining tax incentives for property expansion and improvements they have made or will make in adding casinos.
Calder Race Course is considering construction of a casino that would have Class III Las Vegas-style slots.
Tampa Bay Downs, along with Greyhound tracks and jai-alai frontons outside Miami-Dade and Broward, will again be interested in obtaining  approval for slot machines.
“If the matrix is right, we think that could be viable,” said Peter Berube, vice president and general manager of Tampa Bay Downs. Viability likely would require a state tax rate lower than 50 percent, he said
The dominant issue will be the Seminole compact--especially the blackjack and baccarat tables that Tribe has at three casinos.
The Seminoles are operating those table games even though the Supreme Court of Florida last year declared they are illegal.  The court, in a civil suit filed by the Florida House, ruled that Crist exceeded his authority by permitting a form of gaming that had not been legal in Florida.
The compact permitted the Seminoles to upgrade from Class II bingo-like slots to Las Vegas slots and gave them exclusive rights to those two table games in Florida.
In return, the Seminoles are for the first time paying a portion of their gaming revenues to the state--including a $100 million payment for 2008. Some pari-mutuel officials estimate that is less than 10% of Seminole gaming revenues.
Gulfstream and Calder compete for gaming dollars with a Seminole casino in Hollywood that has blackjack and baccarat. Tampa Bay Downs competes with a Seminole casino in Tampa that has those games.
Sen. Dennis Jones, R-Seminole, is among legislative leaders who earlier this month met with officials of the Seminoles and of the pari-mutuel industry, on subjects including possible negotiations between Crist and the Legislature that could change the compact.
Jones maintain that if the Seminoles are permitted an exclusive product, such as blackjack, “there should be some balance” that would help the pari-mutuel industry.
While no bills have been introduced yet, Jones said that could include lower taxes or tax incentives for existing pari-mutuel casinos and/or permission for more pari-mutuels to have casinos and slot machines.
Jones is chairman of the Regulated Industries Committee, which has initial jurisdiction on gaming issues. His district is adjacent to the district that includes Tampa Bay Downs.
The federal Indian Regulatory Gaming Act permits the Seminoles to have Las Vegas-style slots, even without a compact in which they make payments to the state.
Thus, Jones expects the legislature and Crist will agree to a compact.
Marc Dunbar, a Tallahassee attorney who represents Gulfstream, and Sarah Bascom, spokeswoman for the South Florida Gaming Coalition that includes Calder, said their clients will consider seeking changes in tax structure and gaming products that would lead to what pari-mutuels consider “a more level playing field” with the Seminoles.
The Florida Thoroughbred Breeders’ and Owners’ Association supports the pari-mutuels on tax issues and is waiting to see proposals on the compact, said Dick Hancock, FTBOA executive vice president.
The Seminoles are not opposed to a reduction in the pari-mutuels’ slots tax rate and are hoping that the compact will be approved in its present form, said Gary Bitner, a spokesman for the Tribe.
“Otherwise, we are not speculating on what might happen,” Bitner said.