Gambling loopholes grow as state waits to reform rules

Herald/Times Tallahassee BureauJuly 1, 2013 

TALLAHASSEE -- Days after an administrative law judge ruled last month that barrel races held at a fledgling North Florida racino were not a legitimate pari-mutuel sport, state regulators crafted a license to allow for "flag-drop" races, the first of its kind, to replace them.

In the last two years, the same regulators have allowed slot machine operators to run electronic roulette and craps games in Miami-Dade and Broward, allowed a dormant jai alai permit to be used to expand the number of slot machines at Magic City Casino and allowed Tampa Bay Downs and Gulfstream Racetrack to run a one-time race in June so they could offer thoroughbred races via simulcast year-round.

These are just among a handful of decisions by state regulators that have effectively expanded the gambling footprint in Florida under Gov. Rick Scott.

"There are a couple of clever lawyers out there and we're seeing a lot of strange decisions," said Kent Stirling, executive director of the Florida Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association. "If the law doesn't specifically say no, the answer from the department seems to be, always, yes."

The rulings have not gone without notice by top legislative leaders who have ordered a comprehensive study of gambling in Florida. They say they want the debate to include the loophole-driven expansion of gambling, as well as a discussion about whether to authorize destination resort casinos being pushed by the world's gambling giants.

On Monday, legislators will receive the first of a two-part, $388,000 study ordered from Spectrum Gaming Group, a New Jersey-based expert in gambling analysis.

The second part will come in October and legislators expect to recommend changes in March that could include whether or not to approve destination gambling.

"It behooves the Legislature to walk through all the statutes very deliberately with the goal of possibly rewriting those statutes to add clarification," said state Sen. Garrett Richter, R-Naples, chairman of the Senate Gaming Committee that will conduct the review next session.

State Sen. John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, a veteran of the gambling law fight who once lobbied on behalf of the Jacksonville greyhound track, believes the Legislature's failure to reform its gambling laws led to the inadvertent expansion of gambling.

Lawyers at the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation's Division of Pari-Mutuel Wagering, wouldn't comment Friday when asked about the pattern of rulings.

"DBPR is a regulatory agency that implements the laws created by the Legislature," said Ronnie Whitaker, DBPR chief of staff.

A draft of the first part of the Spectrum report suggests "the overall financial trend for Florida pari-mutuels has been on a steady downward spiral." But if the Legislature refrains from putting together a comprehensive gambling plan, as it has in the past, the report warns there will be consequences.

"Based on our research and experience in Florida and elsewhere, gaming will evolve in Florida whether or not the Florida Legislature develops a plan and puts that plan into action," the draft report concludes. "Absent any plan, however, that evolution would be haphazard and would be far less likely to address or advance any public-policy goals."

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