State Politics

House committee OKs plans to help pari-mutuels

MANATEE — A plan approved Monday would help pari-mutuel businesses like the Sarasota Kennel Club to become more competitive through extended hours and higher wagering limits, while those that currently operate slot machines would enjoy a reduced tax rate, officials said.

A House committee voted 15-4 in favor of a proposal that pari-mutuel businesses be allowed more flexibility so they might better compete with casinos, said Rep. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, after the meeting in Tallahassee.

“I’m very pleased we’ve moved the bill out of committee,” he said, estimating it would come to the floor of the House for a vote later this week.

“We’re ready to continue negotiation with the Senate,” Galvano added.

The plan extends hours of operation for card rooms, like the one at the Sarasota club, from 12 hours to 24 hours; it increases wager limits from $5 to $50 per bet, and the buy-in for no-limit Texas Hold ’Em from $100 to $1,000, according to a summary of the legislation.

The plan addressing the state’s 27 pari-mutuels is linked to a proposed agreement with The Seminole Tribe of Florida, said Galvano, chairman of the House Select Committee on Seminole Indian Compact Review. The Tribe operates seven casinos statewide.

Under the two-part House proposal, pari-mutuels would pay the state a minimum of $140 million in revenue, with the Seminole Tribe contributing another $270 million in the first year, for a total of at least $410 million annually “without a full-on expansion of gaming,” Galvano said.

The Sarasota club might close if the state OKs an agreement that puts it at a competitive disadvantage, its owner has said. But with recession draining the usual sources of state revenue, legislators say changes in gaming laws would add multi-millions each year.

The House 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.

The House plan calls for lowering the tax rate from 50 to 36 percent with the lower rate tied to a minimum annual payment for three pari-mutuel businesses in South Florida that already operate slot machines, he added. It also lowers slot machine license fees from $3 million to $2 million.

However, it prohibits expansion elsewhere of slot machines or card games like blackjack and baccarat, Galvano noted.

A new gaming agreement could generate $2 billion in tribe resort construction in Florida, with 29,000 new jobs associated with the casino business, according to a legislative analysis of the proposal.

However, pari-mutuel businesses are in a decline that would be hastened by such increased competition, and other leisure industries, such as lodging and restaurants, would also be negatively affected, it said.

Resort and convention businesses alone would experience a loss of $100 million as a result of competition from the tribe’s activities, it said.

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

That agreement authorized the tribe to offer slot machines 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, but OK exclusive rights to operate slot machines in counties that currently do not have them.

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

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