State Politics

House plan would help pari-mutuel businesses

MANATEE — Pari-mutuel businesses like the Sarasota Kennel Club could become more competitive through extended hours and higher wagering limits, and others that currently operate slot machines would enjoy a reduced tax rate tied to a minimum annual payment under a plan to be unveiled today.

A legislative committee chaired by Rep. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, plans to propose that the state’s 27 pari-mutuel businesses be allowed more flexibility so they might better compete with the state’s casinos.

The plan addressing pari-mutuels is linked to a proposed agreement with The Seminole Tribe of Florida that the House committee has already approved, Galvano said. The Tribe operates seven casinos statewide.

The state would draw a minimum of $140 million in revenue from pari-mutuel companies, and an estimated $270 million annually from the Seminoles, for a total of more than $400 million, said Galvano.

“A lot of information we got in committee was that the tax rate the pari-mutuels were paying was cost-prohibitive, preventing them from making further investments,” said Galvano.

Relaxing state restrictions would help them to compete more effectively, encouraging expansion and generating more money, he added.

The owner of the Sarasota club, with dog racing and a small-stakes card room, has said his business might close if the state agrees to an arrangement putting him at a competitive disadvantage.

The issue is important because the recession has curtailed the usual sources of revenue for the state, and legislators say changes in gaming laws would add multi-millions for education.

The committee’s proposal would also lift some restrictions on racetrack pari-mutuels, allowing those already racing quarter horses to convert to thoroughbred racing if they could meet certain requirements, Galvano said.

“We’re making great progress, we’ll bring this bill up for a vote on Monday,” he said, referring to the upcoming meeting in Tallahassee of the House Select Committee on Seminole Indian Compact Review.

Gary Bitner, a spokesman for the Tribe, said Wednesday, “Obviously, the Tribe is following everything, but I don’t think we want to comment on pari-mutuel legislation.”

The committee’s plan calls for lowering the tax rate from 50 to 36 percent for three pari-mutuel businesses in South Florida that already operate slot machines, Galvano said.

However, it would not allow expansion elsewhere of slot machines or card games like blackjack and baccarat, he noted.

“With a 36 percent share going to the state, more licensees will come online, we have the potential of seven non-tribe facilities,” said Galvano.

Legislators are reviewing a 2007 gambling agreement that Gov. Charlie Crist negotiated with the Tribe, which operates a casino in Tampa, 40 miles north of Manatee County.

The governor’s agreement authorized slot machines at Tribe casinos and granted exclusive rights to card games like blackjack and baccarat, but it was struck down by the courts on grounds that it needed legislative approval.

The legislature’s two chambers are fielding differing proposals. The House version would strip Tribe casinos of the right to operate card games like blackjack and baccarat, and give exclusive rights to the Tribe to operate slot machines in 65 counties that currently do not have them.

The Senate plan would allow a considerable expansion of gaming options, adding roulette, craps games and card games for non-tribal businesses, in addition to the original terms of the compact. The Senate plan also would allow video lotteries all over the state.

Sara Kennedy, Herald reporter, can be reached at (941) 708-7908 or at