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Bill to extend Seminole Compact squeaks by Senate committee

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Today, the Senate Regulated Industries Committee squeaked through a bill seeking to extend the Seminole Compact for one more year.

Lawmakers expanded a proposal allowing horse and dog tracks to operate card rooms and slot machines without offering any races.

Chair Rob Bradley wrote the bill, but voted against the amendments after asking for the proposal to become a committee bill. Then, he voted against the final product.

Nearly the same bloc of senators, the same ones who carried the day with the greyhound decoupling measure, voted 7-5 supporting the amended measure.

“I may have some personal feelings about gaming, but my job is to take all the views of the Senate and take them together and have this debate and move it forward,” Bradley said afterward. “Where we end up as a Senate may not be exactly where Senator Bradley votes.”

The Compact is a gambling revenue-sharing deal, with a significant portion set to expire July 31. Bradley proposed allowing the Seminole Tribe of Florida to continue offering banked card games, such as blackjack and baccarat, until July 2016, allowing for negotiations for a new deal.

State Sen. Maria Sachs convinced committee members to include her proposal, which lifts the requirement for dog tracks to schedule a minimum number of races to keep what state Sen. Kelli Stargel called “mini-casinos.”

State Sen. Joe Abruzzo supported the final bill because he favors greyhound decoupling, saying the sport has lost its audience and people of his generation would not be attending dog races after retirement.

Lobbyists for both dog and horse tracks argued the proposal would harm their industries.

Abruzzo had a message for the thoroughbred industry: “I stand with you. At the end of the day, whatever winds up on the floor of the Senate has to make sure that our thoroughbreds are taken care of.”

Stargel, in opposition, said if tracks no longer wanted to offer racing, return their racing licenses to the state and give others a chance with the sport.

“Decoupling is a similar issue to bowling alleys,” she said. “We allow them to have a liquor license and now they want to get rid of bowling and be bars.

“The same thing with the dog tracks.  A dog track license allows them to do card rooms and now they want to get rid of dog tracks and have a mini casino.”

Extending the Compact — or expanding gambling — may still be a losing hand this session. With only four weeks left in session, a 7-5 vote for any committee bill may not be a good sign.

State economists estimate an extension would reap the state about $136 million next year. Seventeen city and county governments where Seminole casinos are located get a 3 percent share of the Tribe’s take.

Last year, it meant splitting $7 million.

Talking to reporters after the meeting, Bradley noted the number of close votes today was because there are many things lawmakers feel strong about.

“We’re going to continue to talk to the Tribe to see if we can find common ground but right now it is a bridge too far between the Tribe and the state,” Bradley said.

“Are we going to close that bridge before the end of session? We now have a vehicle to close that bridge.”

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