State Politics

Senate bill would open up gambling in Fla.

TALLAHASSEE — Roulette wheels could start spinning at the Seminole Tribe’s casinos while its competitors would get blackjack or electronic bingo machines under a Senate proposal introduced Tuesday that could open the door to the largest gambling expansion in state history.

The Senate plan, sponsored by Senate Regulated Industries Chairman Dennis Jones, is a stark contrast to a gambling bill released by a House committee also on Tuesday. Both lay the groundwork for the debate over how the state should approach the gambling agreement to authorize Las Vegas-style slot machines at the Seminole casinos.

The House bill would strip the tribe of its existing blackjack and banked card games while the Senate’s version unfurls a dramatic increase in gambling that includes more Las Vegas-style games for the tribe and more options for horse and dog tracks and jai alai frontons.

“They are allowing anything and everything,” said Rep. Bill Galvano, the Bradenton Republican who chairs the House Seminole Indian Compact Review committee. “We’re not prepared to do that.”

It’s the opening salvo in the fight over rewriting the gambling compact between the state and the tribe. The Florida Supreme Court invalidated the original agreement signed by Gov. Charlie Crist because the governor didn’t have the authority to give the tribe house-banked card games.

Jones, a Republican from Seminole, is the Senate’s chief gambling negotiator. His proposal not only authorizes Florida’s ailing parimutuel industry to add casino games to compete with the tribe’s Hard Rock casinos, it also maximizes the revenue potential for the state in the worst economic crisis in decades.

The Senate plan, analysts project, would produce $1 billion a year in annual revenue dedicated to education, including $400 million in yearly payments from the tribe. The House plan, by contrast, would require the tribe to pay $100 million a year because it would continue to allow the the tribe exclusive use of Class III, Las Vegas-style slot machines outside of Miami-Dade and Broward counties.

Jones said the money from his proposal could allow legislators to avoid raising the property tax rate to pay for schools in order to offset a 12 percent drop in property values.

“Members have a decision to make,” he said. “They can either allow the existing parimutuels to have more products or they can go back home and raise property taxes. It’s a pretty clear choice.”

Crist, who has urged lawmakers to pass a compact to take advantage of the revenue from the tribe, said Tuesday that he likes the Senate approach.

“I’m open to any idea that will help us get the compact,” Crist said. “We need the money . . . I’m generally supportive of what I’ve seen so far.”

Crist’s comments mark a dramatic shift from the limited-gaming approach he embraced when he signed the compact in November 2007. Crist said then that the value of giving the tribe the exclusive right to blackjack and other banked card games outside of South Florida was to limit the expansion of gambling. He raised that point again in his State of the State speech to lawmakers on the opening day of the legislative session.

Jones argues that the Senate approach does not expand gambling because it requires both the Seminoles and the parimutuels to use their existing gambling sites to house the new games.

“You’re not looking at expansion. You’re trying to make the make more products available to create more jobs,” Jone said.

But Galvano warns that the ramp-up time for the new gambling facilities will be too slow for the state to count on increased revenues for next year’s budget. The Senate plan gives the governor until Dec. 31 to complete the compact with the tribe and the state couldn’t use any revenue sharing money until after that point.

“I would just caution anyone who would start plugging those dollars into a budget proposal,” he said.

Crist had counted on $288 million in revenue from the tribe when he built his recommended budget for the 2009-10 fiscal year. The Senate plan has the potential to increase that amount while allowing the governor and legislators to escape violating their no-new-taxes pledges. But legislative economist Amy Baker has raised doubts about how reliable any expansion of gaming will be in this economic climate.