Florida VLT Legislation Filed

Florida legislators faced with the chore of cutting $1 billion from the state budget may take a serious look at video lottery as a way to make ends meet.

Two South Florida senators have filed a bill that would allow racetracks and jai-alai frontons to operate VLTs, according to the Sarasota Herald-Tribune. A companion bill in the House is expected to be filed this week.

Senate Majority Jim King, R- Jacksonville, and Rep. Carlos Lacasa, R-Miami, who is chairman of the House budget panel, have said the machines could generate between $500 million and $800 million in revenue annually for the state while helping the ailing pari-mutuel industry. House Speaker Tom Feeney, R-Oviedo, also is reportedly willing to consider the legislation.

The major roadblock will be Republican Gov. Jeb Bush who opposes any form of expanded gambling. Bush vowed to veto any VLT legislation the last time it was considered. Florida voters have not been supporters of additional gambling either, having defeated three proposed constitutional amendments allowing casino gambling since 1978.

Supporters of the legislation hope a provision calling for all state VLT money to be dedicated to public schools, community colleges, and universities will make it more palatable.

"I would hope that the governor will think long and hard before vetoing this bill," Sen. Steve Geller, D-Hallandale Beach, told the Herald-Tribune. Geller is one of the sponsors of the video gambling legislation. Gulfstream Park is in his district.

Lobbyist Ron Book, who represents Calder Race Course and dog tracks in Lee and Dade counties, said this year may present the best opportunity yet to pass VLT legislation.

"It raises revenue, a lot of revenue, and it's not a tax," Book told the Herald-Tribune. "Its time has come."

Not all legislators agreed.

Sen. Lisa Carlton, R-Osprey, chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said she is opposed to shoring up the state budget with gambling revenue.

"It's obviously an expansion of gambling," Carlton told the Sarasota newspaper. "That is not the way to address what is going on in our economy."

Florida has 26 active pari-mutuel facilities statewide that offer Thoroughbred, harness, and greyhound racing and jai-alai. The only off-track betting parlor is in Ocala.

The legislation restricts where VLTs could operate to pari-mutuel business that have had live races or jai-alai games in the past year. Geller said the restriction prevents anyone from setting up VLT-only gambling parlors.

Pari-mutuel industry representatives told the Herald-Tribune the legislation will help their businesses compete against the Florida Lottery, cruises-to-nowhere that feature unregulated casino gambling offshore, and gambling parlors run by the Seminole and Miccosukee tribes.

The legislation,however, could also open a door the pari-mutuel industry may want to stay closed. If the VLT legislation passes, it would render moot an ongoing legal effort by the state to stop Indian tribes from expanding their gambling operations, according to Jon Glogau, special counsel to state Attorney General Bob Butterworth.