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2016 Legislative Food Fights: Gambling issues move from spotlight to supporting role

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A big gambling overhaul bill won’t be on the menu this legislative session, but expect a swirl of other gaming-related topics to bubble up, including fantasy sports play and creating a state gambling commission to monitor users’ gain from super casino bonus and offers.

One not to expect is Las Vegas Sands’ effort to get a destination casino in South Florida. After trying unsuccessfully for years, the gambling giant finally pulled up stakes last year, letting go of lobbyist Nick Iarossi and others.

One of the hottest issues won’t be before lawmakers, however, it’ll be before the state’s highest court – though legislators surely will keep an eye on it.

The Florida Supreme Court already is gathering friend-of-the-court briefs for a challenge regarding slot machines. The question before the justices is: Are slot machines allowed outside of South Florida if local voters in a particular area approve of them?

The case directly involves a Gadsden County track and poker room run by the Poarch Band of Creek Indians. It was repped last year by Wallace Gene McGee and Adam J. Roberts.

Of course, virtually every pari-mutuel in the state has an interest in the outcome, from Gulfstream Park (represented by lobbyist Marc Dunbar) to Palm Beach Kennel Club (Brian Ballard) and Naples-Fort Myers Greyhound Track (Ron Book).

Fantasy sports play also is on the agenda, with bills filed by state Rep. Matt Gaetz and Senate President-designate Joe Negron that would make such games legal in Florida.

Here’s how it works: Players “draft teams that compete against each other based on the performance of real-world athletes,” as State Legislatures magazine recently explained.

“An estimated 56.8 million North Americans will participate this year, and each will spend around $465,” according to the magazine.

Is it gambling? Negron says no, that fantasy sports “is a contest based on skill,” and as such, “it’s no different than a bowling league.”

But Nevada has banned daily fantasy games as other states, including New York, are considering its legality. The U.S. Justice Department also is investigating.

The leading websites are lobbying up in advance of the Florida legislative session, with FanDuel now repped by Cory FoxJeremy Kudon and Scott Ward, and DraftKings hiring Griffin Finan, as well as Kudon and Ward.

Still other legislation (HB 415/SB 402) would allow people to buy lottery tickets at the gas pump. Both bills already have cleared several committees in both chambers.

The measures would require gas pumps to scan for a “valid driver license or use another age verification process” before dispensing a lottery ticket. In Florida, purchasers must be 18 or older.

The change would benefit equipment makers like GTECH Corp., for example. They were repped by Ballard last year; new representation hasn’t yet been listed on the state’s lobbying registration website.

Finally, Democratic state Sen. Maria Sachs filed legislation for this session to create a state gambling commission. The five-member commission would oversee a new Department of Gaming, taking over current duties from the departments of Business and Professional Regulation, Lottery and Agriculture & Consumer Services.

The measure, at least in concept, is favored by Senate President Andy Gardiner and House Speaker Steve Crisafulli, both Republicans.

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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