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House Speaker: “Lights Are Out” On Gambling

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(Photo Credit: MIKE CLARKE/AFP/Getty Images)

(Photo Credit: MIKE CLARKE/AFP/Getty Images)

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TALLAHASSEE (CBSMiami/NSF) – House Speaker Will Weatherford put a lid on any gambling legislation this session, including a proposal backed by the Senate’s first family that would require tracks to report greyhound injuries and deaths.

“I would say at this point the lights are out,” Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, told The News Service of Florida on Wednesday afternoon.

Weatherford’s comments came a day after a Senate committee set in motion a measure that would add Florida to all other states but Alabama that require greyhound tracks to report dog injury and deaths. The proposal has the blessing of Senate President Don Gaetz, his wife Vicky and son, Rep. Matt Gaetz. The Senate “first family” was present for most of the Senate Gaming Committee’s debate Tuesday, which also included a proposal that would allow greyhound tracks to do away with dog racing altogether.

But even the injury reporting appears to be a non-starter this late in the session, Weatherford said.

“I know that bill’s been filed in the House. I don’t think that bill’s been heard in its first committee. So usually when you get into week six, week seven in session, if the bill hasn’t been heard in committee it’s unlikely … I would just say overall that gaming reform, gaming expansion, I think the lights have gone out on that issue at this point,” Weatherford said.

Through a spokeswoman, the Senate president said he had no comment Wednesday afternoon.

Last week, Senate Gaming Committee Chairman Garrett Richter announced on the Senate floor that he was giving up on a sweeping gambling overhaul that would have authorized two Las Vegas-style casinos in South Florida, one each in Miami-Dade and Broward counties. Instead, Richter, R-Naples, allowed his committee to take up the greyhound measure (SB 742).

Sen. Maria Sachs, D-Delray Beach, withdrew amendments that would have allowed the tracks to stop racing greyhounds, after it became clear she lacked the votes for approval. The amendments included a variety of other components that critics said would have expanded gambling. Sachs said later Tuesday she still plans to modify the bill to allow the tracks to do away with dog racing altogether.

Weatherford said several weeks ago that “lights are dimming” on a gambling package, even after the Legislature paid $400,000 for a study on the issue and after the Senate held a series of workshops around the state to take public input.

A variety of groups — including out-of-state gambling operators and the Florida Panthers hockey organization — have intensified their demands for Florida to approve Las Vegas-style casinos this session after lawmakers rejected the idea two years ago. At the same time, the state’s pari-mutuels, Disney World and its affiliates and the Seminole Tribe have balked at the proposal. Gambling-related groups on both sides of the issue have contributed over $4.6 million to lawmakers, candidates and political parties since the 2012 elections. Disney and its associated enterprises have contributed more than $2.2 million during the same time period.

Many of the casino-seeking groups had viewed this legislative session as their best shot for passage of any measure opening the door to “destination resorts,” with promises of jobs and revenue for the state. After this November’s elections, Sen. Andy Gardiner, an Orlando Republican and outspoken gambling opponent who even objects to the state Lottery, is slated to take over as Senate president.

But early in March, Weatherford drew an almost insurmountable line in the sand regarding gambling. The speaker linked any gambling measure with a constitutional amendment he wanted the Legislature to place on the November ballot that would give voters a say in any future gambling expansion.

And, even more problematic, Weatherford insisted that Gov. Rick Scott wrap up negotiations with the Seminoles regarding a portion of a gambling deal with the tribe set to expire in mid-2015. While Scott is in talks with the Seminoles, the governor has not given Weatherford or other legislative leaders a timeline for when the deal, which also requires federal approval, would be sealed.

Weatherford said he had not spoken directly to Scott about the compact.

“We understand he’s worked very hard to try to come to an agreement with the tribe. But he may want and need more time to negotiate,” he said.

Whatever agreement Scott and the Seminoles reach requires the Legislature’s approval. Barring an unlikely special session on the issue, the so-called gambling compact will likely not be authorized until lawmakers meet again next spring — after the November election in which Scott is trying to retain his seat and Republican-turned-independent-turned-Democrat Charlie Crist, who as GOP governor signed the 2010 deal with the tribe, is angling to return to the governor’s mansion.

Scott is negotiating the portion of the compact that gives the Seminoles the “exclusive” rights to banked card games, including blackjack, at five of its seven facilities in exchange for $1 billion over five years.

While the death of the overall gambling issue may provide lawmakers — and especially Scott — a breath of relief this year, the Legislature will almost certainly be enmeshed in the thorny issue again next session.

“By the nature of the expiration of the existing compact, with the portion of the banked card games, I definitely think it sets up an environment where gaming will be debated quite heavily,” Weatherford said.

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

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