Lawmakers revive gambling talks with proposal to allow slot machines in more counties

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With time running out on the annual legislative session, the Florida House ended the stalemate on a gaming bill late Thursday, offering to allow three counties to add slot machines to their horse or dog tracks.

The offer from members of the House conference committee on gaming would renew the multibillion dollar compact between the state and the Seminole Tribe and allow three counties — which have yet to be designated — to operate slot machines, but it comes with strict conditions that create winners and losers:

▪ Eight casinos now in Miami-Dade and Broward must reduce the maximum number of machines they are authorized to operate from 2,000 to 1,500.

▪ The three yet-to-be-determined counties would be among the eight counties that have already conducted a referendum to approve the games at their pari-mutuel facilities — as long as they meet certain conditions aimed at avoiding competition with the Seminole Tribe’s Hard Rock and other casinos.

▪ Any facility within 100 miles of the Seminole Tribe’s Tampa Hard Rock could not be included.

▪ Any facility within 25 miles of the tribe’s remaining casinos would also not be eligible. That means the Naples/Fort Myers Greyhound Racing track, run by the Havenick family, which operates the Magic City Casino in Miami, would not be eligible. But it would allow parimutuels in counties such as St. Lucie, where Senate President Joe Negron, R-Stuart, has said he wants to honor the voters’ decision.

▪ The new casinos must generate at least $40 million a year in annual slot machine taxes and fees.

The House had spent all session resisting expanding the availability of slot machines until Thursday. Its gambling bill, (HB 223), authorizes the agreement the tribe made with the governor in 2016 that allows the tribe to add craps and roulette at its Hard Rock casinos in Tampa and Hollywood and its five other casinos around the state, in exchange for millions in additional annual payments to the state — up from about $250 million now.

It also adds a new provision that specifies fantasy sports games will be exempt from state gambling regulations.

The Senate, by contrast, has proposed expanding slot machines in eight counties that have approved local referenda, but that proposal has been opposed by the tribe. Under federal gaming law, the state must offer the tribe the ability to exclusively operate some games in exchange for revenues to the state.

Senate negotiators must consider the proposal and decide whether to make a counter offer before legislators are scheduled to adjourn at midnight Sunday. Legislators are motivated to agree to a gaming package because they are concerned that a “no casinos” constitutional amendment before voters in November that could strip them of any ability to expand gambling in the future.

The tribe, along with a Disney company, are the primary backers of the constitutional amendment, called the “Voter Control of Gambling Amendment,” which will require statewide voter approval to operate any additional gambling in Florida.

“This offer is not intended to be comprehensive. However, it’s taken a big step toward the Senate’s position,’’ said Rep. Mike LaRosa, R-St. Cloud, chair of the conference committee. He said that the stalemate over expanding slot machines was “the big elephant in the room.”


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