Florida Lawmakers Differ on Slots, Tax Rate

The Florida House voted May 2 to limit Broward County pari-mutuel facilities to bingo-based gambling machines rather than traditional slot machines and to take 55% of the revenue in taxes. The Senate, meanwhile, wants regular slot machines and a much lower tax rate.

The House passed the measure on a 91-24 vote as the legislative session approached its end the week of May 2. The possibility of both houses passing a final bill is in doubt, the Associated Press reported.

Floridians approved a statewide ballot measure last November that changed the state constitution to give Broward and Miami-Dade counties the choice of allowing slot machines at seven racetracks and jai-alai frontons. The pari-mutuel industry sold the measure by promising any tax revenue would be spent on schools across the state. Voters in Miami-Dade rejected slots, while voters in Broward approved them.

Gulfstream Park, in the midst of a massive reconstruction project, is located in Broward County. Track owner Magna Entertainment Corp. is spending about $145 million to rebuild the plant and is banking on a good revenue return from slots.

Regulation of slots is complicated by federal law, which gives Indian tribes the right to negotiate for any kind of gambling allowed elsewhere in a state. Both the Seminole and the Miccosukee tribes have notified Gov. Jeb Bush they want to start negotiations, and they believe the November vote gives them the right to Las Vegas-style slot machines. Bush wants to limit the expansion of gambling.

The House bill would limit the Broward facilities to bingo-like devices. With a 55% tax rate, an estimated $320 million would be raised for schools in a few years, according to Republican Rep. Frank Attkisson, who has overseen the legislation.

The Senate bill would allow Las Vegas-style slots and has a tax rate ranging from 30%-35%, depending on how much money the pari-mutuel facilities collect from the machines. State analysts have estimated that would raise about $400 million for schools, in part because the Vegas-style machines are more profitable, Attkisson said.

In the House, opponents said the legislation doesn't give voters what they asked for. "You know what a slot machine is," said Rep. Tim Ryan, who represents Dania, where a jai-alai fronton and simulcast facility is eligible for slots. "It's a machine where you either pull a handle or you press a button and then you see the cherries, the lemons, and the bar rolls and spins.

"And if you win, all kinds of money comes flying out of the machine. That's a slot machine."

Attkisson countered sponsors of the ballot measure could have defined what they wanted and opted not to, leaving that decision to state lawmakers. He argued the legislature needed to put Bush in a strong position to negotiate with the tribes.

Attkisson conceded the House was "pushing the limit" on the tax rate but defended it as an appropriate and "respectful" level. "If we go too low, we'll never be able to get it higher," he said.