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Florida Panel OKs Decoupling, Gaming Bill

Bill is similar to one passed by a Senate committee earlier in February.

Legislation that would allow most pari-mutuel operations to end live racing or most jai alai games and become slot-machine casinos or card rooms with simulcast wagering easily cleared the Florida House Finance and Tax Committee Feb. 29.

The bill is similar to one that passed the Senate Regulated Industries Committee earlier in February. Both would permit even more slots facilities in the state and reduce the tax the facilities pay from 35% to 30% in the House version and 25% in the Senate version.

An amendment that would have legalized advance deposit wagering—it occurs in Florida but isn't regulated or taxed—was withdrawn before the House committee voted on the bill. Proponents of an ADW law have claimed the state is ignoring the amount of money wagered on pari-mutuel racing and, in turn, underestimating its economic value.

The gambling overhaul is being driven by a $3 billion compact with the Seminole tribe, which operates seven casinos in Florida and apparently wields immense power. On several occasions Feb. 29, lawmakers indicated their decisions are based on whether the tribe will approve.

And after the vote on the bill, the committee approved a resolution that says any expansion of gambling after the compact bill is approved requires a statewide referendum. Jeff Kottkamp, a former lieutenant governor and member of the House in Florida, in comments on the gaming bill said Florida voters three times have rejected casino gambling in statewide referendums.

The House bill permits Standardbred, Quarter Horse, greyhound, and "certain" Thoroughbred and jai alai permit-holders to conduct pari-mutuel wagering and offer slots or card games without the requirement of live racing. It effectively turns racetracks that choose to decouple into off-track betting parlors.

A few members of the House Finance and Tax Committee expressed concern over the decoupling provisions.

"I recognize that much of the coupling that exists today is a farce," said Rep. Matt Caldwell, who voted to pass the bill despite some reservations. "People made an investment in racing, and the public understood that when it made a decision to approve expanded gambling in the state (in specific counties with pari-mutuel facilities)."

Rep. Charles Van Zant, who voted against the measure because he opposes expanded gambling, said he has constituents in the racing business and noted that the public would have no say on decoupling even though it approved pari-mutuel racing decades ago.

"I know what a blow that will be to our animal-raisers," he said. "The fact is people voted to do that, so we should let them vote not to do that. We can't just X-out our citizens."

The House bill is looser on decoupling than the Senate version, which will be heard in the Senate Appropriations Committee March 1. The Senate bill excludes Gulfstream Park and Tampa Bay Downs from decoupling and creates two purse pools—one from the Seminole tribe and the other based on revenue from tracks with gaming that opt to end live racing.

The House version states that 4% of revenue from decoupled tracks would be allocated to Thoroughbred permit-holders based on total live racing days per year. It also sets asides $10 million from the Seminole tribe specifically for Tampa Bay; at least 75% must go toward purses.

Rep. Jose Diaz, a point man on the Seminole compact, said changes to compact legislation "could lead to bills that are unrealistic and unable to pass both chambers." He also said: "This legislation is not in its final form. I think many things will need to be changed."

As for decoupling, Diaz, who represents a Miami district, said lawmakers discussed the issue and see it as providing for less gaming. He said those who see it as an expansion of gambling in Florida are in the minority.

A summary of the bill states that it limits the statewide number of slot machines at pari-mutuel facilities to 16,000. Diaz said about 7,700 are operating in Florida..