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House gambling bill clears Ways and Means Committee on 11-7 vote

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The House Ways & Means Committee voted Tuesday for legislation that would extend Indian gambling in Florida but otherwise restrict the growth of the industry in Florida.

The bill (HB 7037), by Rep. Mike La Rosa, passed out of the committee on an 11-7 vote.

La Rosa argued the bill is the key to negotiating a gambling compact with the Seminole Tribe.

“I think they’re trying to get the best deal. That may mean other games or, of course, paying less revenue. At the end of the day, we’re representing our constituent base here in the state of Florida. We’re going to get the best deal for them,” La Rosa said.

La Rosa chairs the Tourism and Gaming Control Subcommittee, which already OK’d the measure 10-5. The next stop is the Commerce Committee.

The debate Tuesday pitted members skeptical of gambling against those who see it as expanding jobs and the economy.

For example, when ranking Democrat Joseph Abruzzo protested language restricting pari-mutuel betting, La Rosa said that was the point.

“Philosophically, I’m not a proponent for expanding gaming. And if we give them more, we would be expanding gaming,” La Rosa said.

Proponents also worried about Florida’s brand as a family-friendly vacation destination. Democrats including Joseph Geller objected to “poison pill” language that might steer gambling proceeds to charter schools.

“We have gambling now. It just doesn’t define us. I hope it never will,” said Jeff Kottkamp, representing the Florida Greyhound Association.

Abruzzo remarked that many gambling interests were absent from the hearing.

“They’ve been dealing with this year after year after year. At some point, they just want anything to move past our committee processes, and anything to move in the Senate. So we can get to conference, and everything can be negotiated and changed,” he said.

“I’m not, honestly, focused on what they’re (the Senate) is doing,” La Rosa told reporters following the vote. “I’m focused on what we need to get out of here. Then we’ll sit down and chat with them.”

He said House members are talking to the Seminole Tribe — which has indicated “they like our bill better than what the Senate has proposed.”

There are many contrasts between the House and Senate legislation. The Senate’s gambling bill (SB 8) has cleared all its committees and is awaiting a hearing on the chamber floor.

The House bill would outlaw designated-player card games, but the Senate would let “all card room operators … offer designated player games.” 

The House also would prohibit the expansion of slot machines, while the Senate generally expands the availability of slot machines.

Moreover, La Rosa’s legislation would divert the state’s cut of the Seminole gambling money — $3 billion over seven years — for education, split three ways among K-12 teacher recruitment and retention bonuses, schools that serve students from persistently failing schools, and for “higher education institutions to recruit and retain distinguished faculty.”

Abruzzo, of Boynton Beach, withdrew amendments that would have allowed slot machines and traditional casino games including blackjack and roulette upon approval by a vote of county residents and the city or county government involved.

The operations would have to turn over 35 percent of their take to the local government.

If the voters or local government says “No,” the matter cannot be raised again for five years.

He said he hope to pursue those options later.

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Michael Moline is a former assistant managing editor of The National Law Journal and managing editor of the San Francisco Daily Journal. Previously, he reported on politics and the courts in Tallahassee for United Press International. He is a graduate of Florida State University, where he served as editor of the Florida Flambeau. His family’s roots in Jackson County date back many generations.

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