Speaker Weatherford “dims the lights” on gambling reform this session

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There will be no gambling legislation in the 2014 legislative session, says House Speaker Will Weatherford, which includes a high-profile bill requiring dog tracks to reveal greyhound injuries.

“I would say at this point the lights are out,” Weatherford told The News Service of Florida on Wednesday.

Weatherford closed the door on gambling only a day after a Senate committee passed a bill that require greyhound tracks to report injuries and deaths of race dogs.

If passed, Alabama would be the only state left that does not report on greyhound injuries.

Senate President Don Gaetz, along with his wife Vicky and son, Rep. Matt Gaetz are vocal supporters of the measure.

The Gaetz family was there for Tuesday’s Senate Gaming Committee debate, which included a bill that would allow greyhound tracks to end dog racing.

But Weatherford believes is too late in the session for approval of an injury reporting bill.

“I know that bill’s been filed in the House. I don’t think that bill’s been heard in its first committee,” Weatherford said.

“So usually when you get into week six, week seven in session, if the bill hasn’t been heard in committee it’s unlikely … I would just say overall that gaming reform, gaming expansion, I think the lights have gone out on that issue at this point.”

Gaetz’s office had no comment.

Senate Gaming Committee Chairman Garrett Richter announced that he was abandoning the sweeping gambling overhaul that could have allowed the construction of two Las Vegas-style casinos in South Florida, one in Miami-Dade and another in Broward.

Richter chose instead to have his committee take up (SB 742), the greyhound measure, reports Dara Kam of the News Service of Florida.

After it was obvious she lacked votes for approval, Sen. Maria Sachs withdrew several amendments, including one allowing dog tracks to end greyhound racing.

Critics said Sachs’ amendments would have expanded gambling.

Weatherford first said, “lights are dimming” on a gambling package weeks ago, even after the Legislature paid $400,000 for a study the issue. There were several Senate workshops around the state for public feedback on gambling expansion.

The drive for gambling expansion this session has intensified, led by the Florida Panthers hockey association, out-of-state gambling operators and other gambling interests, primarily to support construction of Las Vegas-style casinos after the proposal was rejected by lawmakers two years ago.

Gambling-related groups on both sides of the issue spent more than $4.6 million since the 2012 elections on contributions to lawmakers, candidates and political parties.

Powerful opponents of the proposal included Florida pari-mutuels, Disney World and its affiliates and the Seminole Tribe. Disney and associated anti-casino groups have added more than $2.2 million during the same period.

Most gambling proponents saw this legislative session the best opportunity to deliver a bill allowing “destination resorts,” along with related jobs and income for the state.

And after the November 2014 elections, Sen. Andy Gardiner a noted gambling opponent who even objects to the state Lottery, will become Senate president.

The biggest hurdle came in March, when Weatherford linked any future gambling legislation to a constitutional amendment he asked the Legislature add to the November ballot, giving voters the last word.

Weatherford also adamantly insisted that Gov. Rick Scott finalize negotiations with the Seminole Tribe over a section of the Compact set to expire in mid-2015.

As Scott continues to negotiate with the Seminoles, the governor did not reveal any timeframe for a deal, which also entails federal approval.

“We understand he’s worked very hard to try to come to an agreement with the tribe,” Weatherford said. “But he may want and need more time to negotiate.”

Any agreement between Scott and the Seminoles needs legislative approval, meaning that any gambling contract will probably not be sanctioned until next spring’s session — after the November elections.

Scott currently in a re-election race against Charlie Crist, the Republican-turned-independent-turned-Democrat who signed the 2010 deal with the tribe as a GOP governor.

The part of the deal up for negotiation gives Seminoles “exclusive” rights to offer banked card games, such as blackjack, at five of the seven Tribe-operated facilities, for payments of up to $1 billion over five years.

The death of gambling reform releases much of the political pressure on Scott, Kam writes, and it ensures the Legislature will have to address the issue again next session.

“By the nature of the expiration of the existing compact, with the portion of the banked card games,” Weatherford concluded, “I definitely think it sets up an environment where gaming will be debated quite heavily.”

 

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Phil Ammann is a St. Petersburg-based journalist and blogger. With more than three decades of writing, editing and management experience, Phil produced material for both print and online, in addition to founding HRNewsDaily.com. His broad range includes covering news, local government and culture reviews for Patch.com, technical articles and profiles for BetterRVing Magazine and advice columns for a metaphysical website, among others. Phil has served as a contributor and production manager for SaintPetersBlog since 2013. He lives in St. Pete with his wife, visual artist Margaret Juul and can be reached at phil@floridapolitics.com and on Twitter @PhilAmmann.