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House Gambling Overhaul, With Sweeteners, On A Roll

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Florida Capitol Complex (Source: dms.myflorida.com)

Florida Capitol Complex (Source: dms.myflorida.com)

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TALLAHASSEE (CBSMiami) – A gambling overhaul approved Wednesday by a House select committee opens the door for slot machines in Palm Beach County and could make it easier for industry giant Genting and Gulfstream Park to get rolling on a casino hotel in downtown Miami.

The House Select Committee on Gaming also approved a constitutional amendment that would give voters the final say on future gambling expansions. The proposal would not have any impact on whatever the Legislature finally agrees on, if anything, this spring.

The committee unanimously signed off on a 413-page bill (HB 1383) that would create a gaming commission to regulate the industry and rein in activities such as barrel racing at pari-mutuel facilities. About 90 minutes before the meeting started, the committee published an amendment that rewrote parts of the massive bill, which was approved with relatively little discussion.

The measure adopted Wednesday would make it possible for a nonprofit associated with Gulfstream to relocate its thoroughbred permit from Broward County to Miami-Dade County. Moving the Gulfstream Park Thoroughbred After Racing Program Inc., or GPTARP, permit to the Miami bayfront property owned by Resorts World, a division of Malaysian-based gambling conglomerate Genting Group, is the lynchpin of a deal including horse breeders and trainers. The group wants to use the permit to get up to 2,000 slot machines in a waterfront casino, a dramatically scaled-down version of the $3 billion luxury casino Genting pitched to state lawmakers two years ago but which they failed to approve. State regulators on Friday denied GPTARP’s request to relocate the permit from Gulfstream to the Miami location, saying the permit can only be used in Broward County at the current facility.

The bill, however, would only allow the permit to be moved if “the proposal would not have a net negative impact on state revenues, including those generated under tribal-state gaming compacts.”

House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, has said his chamber will not pass a gambling package unless Gov. Rick Scott has wrapped up negotiations with the Seminole Tribe of Florida regarding a $1 billion, five-year deal set to expire in about a year. Some expansions of gambling — including the Genting/Gulfstream deal — could have an impact on the amount of revenues the tribe pays to the state. Weatherford also wants the constitutional amendment giving voters control over future gambling expansions.

The House bill, sponsored by committee Chairman Rob Schenck, R-Spring Hill, would also allow up to 2,000 slot machines at Palm Beach Kennel Club, if the pari-mutuel agrees to give up another permit. The slots expansion into Palm Beach County would, again, only be permitted if it did not have a negative impact on the deal with the tribe. Right now, the compact with the tribe does not allow any slot machines at pari-mutuels outside of Broward or Miami-Dade counties.

“I think it sends a large message to the folks negotiating the compact that this is something the Legislature has interest in and it’s a way that revenue can be brought to the table to help a new compact be negotiated,” said Brian Ballard, a lobbyist who represents Resorts World and the Palm Beach Kennel Club.

The bill would create a Gaming Control Commission, which would be over a new Department of Gaming Control. In doing so, lawmakers would take away the Department of Business and Professional Regulation’s oversight of the gambling industry.

Bill Bunkley, a lobbyist for the anti-gambling Florida Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, opposed the creation of the gambling commission and the department, warning that they would be made up of “pro-gambling” officials. Scott has also rejected the idea.

But Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach, said the new regulatory structure would offer more “predictability” and would help the state deal with “bad actors” in the gambling industry.

Though he voted for the bill, Rep. Jim Waldman, D-Coconut Creek, said he thinks it needs more changes. For example, he said a 35 percent tax rate on slot machines in Broward and Miami-Dade counties should be lowered, and the state should look at allowing resort casinos in South Florida, something the Senate is including in a gambling bill that has not yet received a committee vote.

The House committee also voted 15-6 to approve a proposed constitutional amendment (PCB SCOG 14-01) that would go on the November ballot.

Weatherford has pushed for the ballot proposal, which would give voters the power to decide whether gambling should be expanded in the future. The proposed amendment would have no impact on whatever lawmakers approve this year, including whether to authorize the Las Vegas-style casino resorts that are part of the Senate plan.

Waldman objected to the proposed amendment, saying it would take away the ability of future lawmakers to make gambling-related decisions.

“I do not think that we should tie the hands of future legislatures,” Waldman said.

But Rep. Charles McBurney, R-Jacksonville, said the state has experienced “gambling creep” and that the ballot proposal would prevent unintentional expansions in the future.

“There are certain issues that are important enough that they need to be put to the voters,” McBurney said.

This report is by Dara Kam with The News Service of Florida.

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