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Senate panel OKs gambling overhaul bill, including Seminole provisions

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The Florida Senate has seemingly fast-tracked the chamber’s gambling overhaul for this year, as its first panel gave unanimous thumbs up to the measure one hour into a meeting that had been scheduled to last four.

The bill (SB 8) was cleared Wednesday by the Regulated Industries committee, which oversees gambling policy. It has only one more stop, Appropriations, before it can be heard on the floor. The 2017 Legislative Session begins March 7.

The measure ensures “substantial positive impacts for many years,” said bill sponsor Bill Galvano, the Bradenton Republican expected to be Senate President in 2018-20. He cited a figure of $375 million in “net economic impact” to state coffers, which could use the extra cash in what may be a tight budget year. 

“It’s about creating stability in a dubious marketplace,” he added. 

Though the Senate may be poised to finally pass gambling legislation after years of inaction, wild cards remain in the form of the House, which remains to averse to anything looking like gambling expansion, and the Seminole Tribe of Florida.

The bill folded in a new agreement with the Tribe that allows them to offer blackjack at all their casinos in return for a $3 billion cut over seven years in card game revenue share to the state.

“I’ve not received a formal response from the Seminole Tribe,” Galvano, the new president of the National Council of Legislators from Gaming Stateslater told reporters.

He helped craft the first gambling deal with the Tribe in 2010 when he was in the House. “I would expect that we will probably soon.”

Tribe spokesman Gary Bitner declined comment when reached later Wednesday.

Indeed, the Seminole Compact was supposed to be “a firewall against the further expansion of gambling,” No Casinos head John Sowinski told the panel. His group opposes the legislation.

Among a slew of provisions, the 112-page bill would allow for more slot machines across the state, approve the sale of lottery tickets at gas pumps, and legalize fantasy sports, but also would pare down the number of state gambling licenses, or pari-mutuel permits. 

Proponents who spoke Wednesday include Miami Gardens Mayor Oliver Gilbert III. He spoke in favor of the bill’s allowance for “decoupling,” in which the state would no longer require dog and horse tracks to run live races if they wish to offer other gambling, such as slots or cards. 

Pari-mutuels say they want decoupling because the audience for dog and horse races – and thus the money bet on them – continues to decline. But horse and dog interests dispute that and say it will kill their industry.

Without thoroughbred decoupling, however, the city’s Calder race track can’t sell its land to developers, and Gilbert says his city needs the potential development.

Despite being a city of 112,000, Miami Gardens has no movie theater, one sit-down restaurant and little retail shopping, Gilbert told the committee.

“Having a community takes more, and allowing gaming without racing does that,” he said. 

But former Lt. Gov. Jeff Kottkamp, now a lobbyist for Florida Greyhound Association, said the bill “breaks the public trust.”

“It was never contemplated that racetracks would be turned into casinos,” he said, referring to a provision that would expand slot machines to qualified tracks in the eight counties where voters OK’d them by referendum, including Brevard, Duval and Palm Beach.

“We’re looking at 24 hours a day, more games, more slots,” Kottkamp said, mentioning another section of the bill that increases hours gambling places can be open. He also told senators the industry purposefully designs slot machines “to be addictive.” 

“The last time a business made its product addictive was the tobacco industry,” he said.

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Before joining Florida Politics, journalist and attorney James Rosica was state government reporter for The Tampa Tribune. He attended journalism school in Washington, D.C., working at dailies and weekly papers in Philadelphia after graduation. Rosica joined the Tallahassee Democrat in 1997, later moving to the courts beat, where he reported on the 2000 presidential recount. In 2005, Rosica left journalism to attend law school in Philadelphia, afterwards working part time for a public-interest law firm. Returning to writing, he covered three legislative sessions in Tallahassee for The Associated Press, before joining the Tribune’s re-opened Tallahassee bureau in 2013. He can be reached at jim@floridapolitics.com.

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