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Casino expansion doubtful, but ‘gaming commission’ floated

TALLAHASSEE — The chair of the Senate’s Gaming committee Monday appeared OK with downsizing the dream of major gambling legislation during the 2014 session.

“I think a big gambling bill is best defined by content, not size,” said Sen. Garrett Richter, R-Naples. The committee’s meeting was a first stab at drawing a broad outline on what should be in a bill.

One area committee members discussed was a “clean-up” of the state’s gambling laws, which don’t actually define “horse racing,” for example.

“One could define that as a big undertaking,” Richter told reporters after the meeting. “If a bill came out and it just eliminated all the ambiguities, I think that’s something that could be taken up by the Senate and the House and approved by the governor.

“Additional components,” he added, “tend to complicate the process a bit.”

The bet has been that lawmakers this year would start debating opening up Florida to more gambling, including Las Vegas-style destination casino-resorts, with a bill to be rolled out during the legislative session that begins March 4.

In 2012, an effort died in the Legislature that would have permitted the construction of three destination hotel-casinos in South Florida.

Last week, however, Senate President Don Gaetz and House Speaker Will Weatherford signaled to reporters their lack of appetite to deal with gambling expansion. This also happens to be an election year.

“It’s not something that we necessarily want to become involved in,” Gaetz said. “But it’s something that circumstances probably require us to do something about.”

Richter led the committee through a slide show of options, including the creation of a statewide Gaming Control Commission. Gambling now is largely regulated through the Department of Business and Professional Regulation.

Another idea, first floated by Gaetz, was a proposed constitutional amendment requiring any expansion of gambling to be approved by 60 percent of the state’s voters.

Also complicating matters is the Seminole Compact, the deal between the state and the tribe that allows it to offer blackjack and other card games at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Tampa and elsewhere.

The card game provision is up for re-negotiation in mid-2015. The compact, worth $1 billion over five years, also allows for the tribe to reduce or halt payments if gambling is allowed to expand elsewhere in Florida.

Added to the mix are gambling interests often at odds with each other. Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, already worries that dog tracks will be left out in the cold under future legislation.

“We’re picking winners and losers,” he said.

Lonny Powell, head of The Florida Thoroughbred Breeders & Owners Association, also told senators the horse racing industry “remain(s) vulnerable to expansion.”

Powell hinted at a “partnership” between thoroughbred breeders and owners, the Gulfstream Park racino in Hallandale Beach, and Genting Resorts World, though he wouldn’t divulge any details.

Genting had wanted to lease Gulfstream’s slot-machine license and open for business in the former Miami Herald headquarters that Genting now owns. The property, which overlooks Biscayne Bay, was to be a destination casino-resort.

That issue highlights the competing interests on the panel itself. Richter said he’s in favor of allowing one or two destination gambling resorts in South Florida.

Sen. Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, also sits on the Gaming committee and is Senate President-designate. He’s aligned with family-friendly Disney, which opposes gambling expansion in the state.

Gardiner even suggested the state Lottery may need to fall under a gaming commission because “the Lottery is gambling,” he said.

For now, the schedule has a bill being ready by the committee’s Feb. 10 meeting for discussion only, then opening up to an initial vote as early as Feb. 17.

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How to sound off

The Senate Gaming committee is drafting a bill to address gambling in the state. A version should be ready for discussion next week.

The gaming committee’s chair is Sen. Garrett Richter, R-Naples, (850) 487-5023. The vice chair is Sen. Maria Sachs, D-Delray Beach, (850) 487-5034.

To find and contact your own senator or representative, visit www.leg.state.fl.us. You’ll also find helpful tips at the Information Center there. More information is at www.flsenate.gov/Media/Topics/gaming

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