State lawmakers OK new deal on gambling - Friday 29th of May 2009

Lawmakers overcame gambling resistance and passed a historic plan to allow the Seminoles to continue offering casino games.

After resisting gambling expansion for decades, Florida lawmakers approved a bill Friday that offers a new gambling deal to the Seminole Tribe, a lower tax rate for parimutuels and a revival of the Hialeah Park race track.

The Senate voted, 31-9, for the bill (SB 788) In the more anti-gambling House, the vote was 82-35.

The bill would allow the historic Hialeah track to operate quarter horse racing -- though half the races could be run by thoroughbreds -- and after two years of live racing, the track can offer the most lucrative games of all: slot machines.

This is our home-grown stimulus package, said Rep. Joe Gibbons, a former Hallandale city councilman whose district is home to two parimutuels, a horse track and a dog track. ``We need this good piece of legislation.

Economic realities carried the measure through the conservative House where nearly every attempt at expanding gambling in Florida has gone to die in recent years.

And it was political persistance by the Miami-Dade delegation that helped move Senate leaders to overcome years of opposition to reviving Hialeah, which opened in 1925 and closed its doors in 2001 when it lost coveted racing dates.

I got a text message at 5:20 a.m. that the bill was in trouble, said Sen. Rudy Garcia, a Hialeah Republican, referring to a Wednesday morning message from Sen. Alex Diaz de la Portilla of Miami. Garcia drove back to Tallahassee and the two joined with other delegation members to preserve the Hialeah provision in the gambling bill.

In the end, the provision remained -- with a warning from Sen. Jim King, a Jacksonville Republican who has long resisted Hialeahs attempts to win new games. He complained that he still has scars from involvement with Hialeahs legislative disputes in the past.

`HAT GOES OFF

My hat goes off to the Miami-Dade delegation . . . but that doesnt make it right, King said. ``You have an entity here that has paid no money whatsoever and now theyre not only going to be whole but better than whole.

Under the bill, which Gov. Charlie Crist is expected to approve, the governor would have until Aug. 31 to re-negotiate a gambling compact with the Seminole Tribe that follows the legislative guidelines. The Legislature would have to ratify the agreement. The previous compact was invalidated last year by the Florida Supreme Court, which ruled Crist had overstepped his authority when he negotiated the deal.

If the agreement is approved, the tribe would pay at least $150 million a year -- $2.2 billion over 15 years -- to the state for the exclusive right to operate slot machines outside of Miami-Dade and Broward counties and to run blackjack, baccarat and chemin de fer at its casinos near Hollywood and Tampa.

The tribe would share 3 percent of revenue with local governments to offset the impact of casinos and must find a way to impose a state sales tax on goods sold to non-tribal members.

EXPANDED HOURS

The legislation also offers parimutuel horse and dog track and jai alai frontons across Florida expanded hours at their card rooms, and betting limits will be lifted on all poker games. Card room hours will be extended from 12 to 18 hours Monday through Friday and 24 hours on Saturday and Sunday.

The tax rate on slot machines in Miami-Dade and Broward will drop from 50 percent to 35 percent -- though casino operators will guarantee that tax revenue to the state will not fall below the estimated $117 million collected in 2008-09.

RE-OPENED FACILITIES?

Closed jai alai facilities, such as those in Mangonia Park, Daytona Beach and Palm Beach, could re-open to operate greyhound racing, followed by card games and intertrack wagering.

Crist thanked lawmakers for their vigilance in finding common ground. It was difficult but you did it well, he said.

The Seminole Tribe, which has been seeking state approval for Las Vegas-style slot machines for years, said in a statement that the legislation ``has been 19 years in the making and we commend the Florida Legislature for taking this critical step.

The tribe did not say whether it will accept the deal but said it will review the bill.

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