Lower Slots Tax Bill Part of New Gaming Legislation Filed in Florida

A joint resolution that would allow voters of individual Florida counties to decide if they want specified forms of casino gaming is among at least two pieces of gaming legislation filed for the upcoming session of the Florida Legislature, which begins March 5.

In addition to the resolution, which would allow mechanical gaming and certain banking card games such as baccarat and blackjack, is a separate Senate bill that in essence seeks the lowering of the current 50% tax rate on slots revenue generated at qualified pari-mutuel facilities.

The joint resolution on casino gaming, which is sponsored by Rep. Julio Robaina (R-Miami), would  limit such activities to hotels or casinos that have at least 250 rooms for overnight patrons.

As opposed to funding public education, as current taxable slots revenue does, a proposed 50% state tax rate included in the resolution would primarily fund the offset of residential homestead property taxes, and help create affordable housing.

Robaina feels the revenue rate would appeal to Florida’s large retiree population, which is often ambivalent towards education initiatives and desires property tax relief. Revenue received from a particular location would remain in that county, he said.

“It’s a source of revenue that we have not tapped into yet,” said Robaina.

The resolution, which would require a daunting two-thirds approval from the entire legislation, doesn’t carry provisions to benefit the racing industry.

“We are supportive of the sentiments behind the resolution, but would be against anything that would put a specified tax rate into the (Florida) constitution,” said Wilbur Brewton, a long-time Florida attorney and lobbyist who includes Calder Race Course among his clients.

The separate Senate bill seeks to significantly lower the current 50% state tax rate on revenue from slot machines, which are presently only allowed at four Broward County facilities, including Gulfstream Park.

The sponsor of the bill, Sen. Steven Geller (D-Hallandale Beach), says Gulfstream and other similar facilities are unfairly burdened by the tax rate, which is the highest such levy in the United States. By the time other demands such as annual licensing fees, purse distributions and other taxes are factored in, a facility could actually lose money on every dollar wagered in a slot machine.

“It’s exactly what I predicted would happen – the more gross money that is wagered, the more they lose,” said Geller of regulations passed last December by Florida legislators. “It’s not just a 50% tax rate. By the time you factor everything else into the mix, it’s more like 62% to 63%.”

The original language of the bill asks for a reduction on the flat revenue tax from 50% to 35%, but Geller said that figure would likely be negotiated upward. The bill also seeks language that would allow individual communities to establish hours for the slots parlors to be open (currently regulated by the state), and seeks the right for ATM machines to be installed at designated areas of a pari-mutuel facility.

A constitutional amendment passed in Florida’s 2004 general election allowed voters in both Broward County and Miami-Dade County to decide if they wanted slot machines at pari-mutuel facilities. Broward County voters approved slots in 2005, but the initiative was defeated in Miami-Dade, which includes Calder among its pari-mutuel facilities. Brewton said another referendum may be offered to Miami-Dade voters later this year.

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