Legislation would let dog race gambling expand, give tax breaks to track owners - Tuesday 25th of March 2008

While its leaders decry expanded gambling in Florida and warn of billions in state budget cuts, a measure pending in the Republican-led state House would give new tax breaks to wealthy racetrack owners and could lead to off-track betting parlors.

A bill originally written to help Palm Beach Kennel Club owner Pat Rooney has suddenly mushroomed into a pari-mutuel relief package for track and fronton owners across the state.

The measure won unanimous approval in the House Jobs and Entrepreneurial Council last week. It could cost the state at least $3 million in tax breaks and would allow off-track betting and card rooms at 10 locations throughout Florida.

Rep. Richard Machek, D-Boca Raton, and Sen. Dave Aronberg, D-Greenacres, filed the bill to help Rooney — whose dog track is struggling to compete against Seminole casinos and Las Vegas-style slots operating just over the county line in Broward County.

Theres so much traffic going south now, theyre trying to keep some people in Palm Beach," Machek explained.

Aronberg said the measures original intent — before House leaders added provisions to it — was to have "a reasonable bill that doesnt cost the state any revenue or dramatically increase gaming."

That all changed in committee; Rep. Ron Reagan, R-Sarasota, the councils chairman, amended the bill to expand the tax breaks and a Miami legislator filed an amendment that could open the door to off-track betting parlors.

Rep. Carlos Lopez Cantera, R-Miami, said he offered the change at a lobbyists urging but conceded he might not have understood its ramifications.

"Everybody has a different interpretation," he said. "They bring you language and they say, This does this. And you say, That sounds OK," he said.

The bill "spun out of control," said Rep. Jack Seiler, of Fort Lauderdale, the top Democrat on the House Policy and Budget Council, the bills next stop.

Seiler questioned any new tax breaks in a year when the state faces about $3 billion in budget cuts —including a potential $1.5 billion hit to public schools — and many programs, especially to help the states sickest residents and the poor, will face drastic cuts or elimination.

"If were giving tax breaks and were not getting additional jobs or employment out of it, its a mistake. The proposal is just not well thought out," he said.

The measure would allow anyone holding dormant jai-alai permits to convert them to greyhound racing permits. But the wording of the House version of the bill would allow those permit holders to run their dog races at a leased facility. That would open the door for them to set up a card room and off-track betting or simulcast operation somewhere else, even at venues not connected to the race track, as long as it is in the same county and within 30 miles of the original location.

Brian Ballard, a lobbyist for Rooney, who also has an interest in the Pittsburgh Steelers and Yonkers Race Course in New York, said that with a tax break and authorization to set up another card room, "well ultimately be able to provide the state with more money."

"With folks in Broward County having slots and with the Indian compact in effect, were at the biggest competitive disadvantage of any track in the state," he said.

The bill had been scheduled for a hearing this week in the Policy and Budget Council but was yanked from its agenda.

House Speaker Marco Rubio, R-West Miami, who has vehemently opposed expanded gambling in Florida and launched a legal challenge against Gov. Charlie Crists authority to enter into a gambling compact with the Seminoles, met with Ballard and Budget Council Chairman Ray Sanson, R-Destin, on Wednesday.

"Theyre working to bring the bill back to earth," Machek said.

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