By Jim Freer
The Florida Legislature ended its annual two-month session May 2 without passing two slot machine bills that were sought by the Thoroughbred industry.
The Senate passed both bills in March. But the House never held hearings on either bill in any of its committees.
During the session, House Speaker Marco Rubio (R-West Miami) several times reiterated his opposition to expansion of gambling. The House did not place the slots bills on its calendar even though the Legislature was forced to cut the state budget to make up for revenue shortfalls attributable to the slowing economy.
One bill would have reduced the state tax rate on slot machines from 50% to 35%, provided pre-determined revenue minimums were met, at racetracks and jai-alai frontons in Broward and Miami-Dade counties.
Gulfstream Park in Broward has had a casino with Class III Las Vegas-style slot machines since November 2006.
Calder Race Course in Miami-Dade has permission for a casino and Class III slots. Parent company Churchill Downs Inc. has said it plans a casino for Calder. CDI officials also have said they would wait for a possible change in the state tax rate before announcing a timetable and other details for that proposed casino.
The other bill would have permitted pari-mutuels in all other Florida counties to have “electronic gaming machines.” The bill describes those machines as similar to Class II bingo-style slot machines.
Tampa Bay Downs, the Ocala Breeders’ Sales Center and 19 other facilities -- Greyhound tracks and jai-alai frontons -- would have been eligible for the machines.
The Legislature also did not pass a bill that would have toughened some rules for operation of Quarter Horse tracks in Florida.
Frank Stronach, chairman of Gulfstream parent Magna Entertainment Corp., is among six applicants currently seeking Quarter Horse permits from the Florida Division of Pari-Mutuel Wagering.
On March 22, Stronach applied for a permit to have a Quarter Horse track in Marion County, in an area near Ocala. The last Quarter Horse races in Florida were in the early 1990s, at harness track Pompano Park in Pompano Beach.
Florida permits Quarter Horse tracks to open in any county that permits pari-mutuel wagering, regardless of proximity to other pari-mutuel facilities. A Quarter Horse track can hold live races just once a year and still have a permit for a year-round card room.
Other horse tracks, such as Thoroughbred, and Greyhound tracks cannot open within 100 miles of a Florida pari-mutuel, and jai-alai frontons cannot open within 50 miles of a pari-mutuel. All of those facilities must hold at least 40 performances a year, to retain their permits including poker.
The House and Senate passed separate bills that would have eliminated or reduced some of the advantages for Quarter Horse tracks. But neither house reconciled the other’s bill.
The popularity of poker rooms was a major attraction for some Quarter Horse applicants.
Stronach in 2002 said he would like to have a permit for a track near Ocala for possible Thoroughbred racing if Florida eases its restrictions on locations for new pari-mutuels. A Delaware corporation called MEC Holdings owns more than 400 acres near the Interstate 75 and U.S. 27 interchange.