House panel OKs bingo machines, sliding tax scale - Tuesday 12th of April 2005

Gamblers going to a jai-alai fronton and three tracks in Broward County to play slots would be sitting at electronic bingo machines under a bill a House panel approved Thursday.

The unanimous vote by the Business Regulation Committee is the first legislative action on how to regulate and tax slots at Broward pari-mutuels - but state lawmakers have a long way to go before they pass a law.

The counterpart committee in the Senate, which has some different views, planned to vote on a bill next week.

"This might not be the perfect bill, this might not be the bill that comes to the floor but it's a hell of a start," said Rep. Juan Zapata, a Miami Republican on the panel.

The House legislation would not allow the Broward facilities to install the full-fledged slot machines that gamblers play in Las Vegas and Atlantic City, N.J.

Instead, the facilities would have to use the kind of gambling machines that are used in Florida's Indian casinos. Those machines look like traditional slot machines but are based on the game of bingo and players play against each other rather than the machine itself.

Under federal law, such electronic bingo games are called "class II" machines. If the state stays at that level, it might be able to keep the six Indian casinos from expanding to the Las Vegas-style machines.

In the Senate Regulated Industries Committee, the sentiment favors full-fledged slot machines.

Besides defining what kind of machines will be allowed in the Broward facilities, a key question before lawmakers has been how much to tax slot revenues.

Under the constitutional amendment that Florida voters approved last November, schools across the state are supposed to get any tax revenue on slot machines. The pari-mutuel industry promised voters that hundreds of millions of dollars would be raised if voters in Broward and Miami-Dade approved slots at their pari-mutuel facilities.

In early March, voters in Broward approved slots and voters in Miami-Dade rejected them. Now lawmakers are trying to figure out the details.

The pari-mutuel industry has advocated a 30 percent tax rate; the House legislation provides for a sliding scale ranging from 35 percent to 45 percent, depending on how many machines a facility installs.

Facilities that have 1,000 or fewer machines would be taxed at the low end; facilities that have between 1,000 and 2,000 machines would be taxed at 40 percent and facilities with up to 3,000 machines, the maximum under the law, would be taxed at 45 percent.

The bill would allow the four facilities to be open for up to 14 hours during the week and around the clock on the weekend.

The committee discussed but did not vote on the issue of using some of the slots revenue to enhance purses at the pari-mutuel facilities and prop up those struggling industries.

Some question whether the constitutional amendment allows purse enhancements and within the pari-mutuel industry there's disagreement over how the money should be divided.

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