Florida Bill Calls for Gaming Expansion

Florida Bill Calls for Gaming Expansion
Photo: Coglianese Photos
Gulfstream Park

The chairman of an important Florida Senate committee March 24 introduced a bill that would allow Gulfstream Park and Calder Race Course to have blackjack and baccarat, while permitting the Seminole Tribe of Florida to keep those two games and add roulette and crap tables at its casinos.

A separate bill on pari-mutuel wagering, also introduced by Sen. Dennis Jones March 24, would authorize electronic gaming machines, a definition of Class II slot machines, at Tampa Bay Downs and all 18 other operating Florida pari-mutuels outside Miami-Dade and Broward counties.

If Hialeah Park runs Quarter Horse meets for two consecutive years, it would be eligible for electronic gaming machines. On March 16, the Florida Division of Pari-Mutuel Wagering issued a Quarter Horse permit to Hialeah Park. It is required to begin racing by March 16, 2010. The now-closed track last held Thoroughbred racing in 2001.

Jones is chairman of the Senate Regulated Industries Committee, which has initial jurisdiction over pari-mutuel and other gaming issues. His home is in the St. Petersburg suburb of Seminole, which is about 15 miles from Tampa Bay Downs in Oldsmar.

On March 25, leaders of the Florida House are expected to introduce one or more gaming bills that would not include the expansion of gaming products Jones is seeking.

Jones’ bill on pari-mutuels would set a state tax rate of 35% of revenue for new machines. Tax revenue would be used for education programs statewide, similar to the use of taxes from pari-mutuel casinos and revenue from Seminole casinos.

The bill also would reduce the state tax rate on slot machine revenues from 50% to 35% at pari-mutuel casinos in Miami-Dade and Broward.

Gulfstream, in Broward, has had a casino with Class III Las Vegas-style slot machines since November 2006. Calder, in Miami-Dade, has said it plans to build a casino but has not announced a date for start of construction.

Jones’ bill, which includes the Seminole issue, in effect is the Senate’s alternative to a controversial gaming compact Gov. Charlie Crist and the Seminoles signed in November 2007. Last July, the Supreme Court of Florida ruled that compact was illegal based on its view that Crist exceeded his authority by permitting a form of gambling that was not legal in Florida—banked card games such as blackjack and baccarat.

Crist permitted the Seminoles to have those games and upgrade from Class II slots to Class III Las Vegas-style slots in return for them making their first payments of a portion of gaming revenues to the state.

The Seminoles, a sovereign nation, continue to have blackjack and baccarat at three casinos despite the Florida high court’s ruling. They are making payments to the state, starting with $100 million last year. Jones’ bill includes a series of higher payments than those set out in the 2007 compact.

The Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Hollywood has blackjack, baccarat, and Class III slots. It competes for gaming dollars with Calder and Gulfstream. The Hard Rock also competes with harness track Isle Racing & Casino at Pompano Park and Greyhound track Mardi Gras Race Track and Gaming, which have Class III slots.

Tampa Bay Downs competes with the Seminoles’ Tampa casino that has Class III slots, blackjack, and baccarat.

Republican Rep. Bill Galvano chairs a special House committee that is preparing an alternative to the Crist-Seminole compact. In interviews with Florida newspapers, Galvano and several other members of that committee said they favor a new compact that would require the Seminoles to remove blackjack and baccarat tables while keeping Class III slot machines.

They have said they oppose expansion of gambling in Florida, and thus would not favor permitting Class II  bingo-like slot machines at Thoroughbred, Standardbred, and Greyhound tracks and jai-alai frontons outside the two South Florida counties.

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