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House panel approves raft of gaming bills

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The House Regulatory Affairs Committee approved a trio of bills that could reshape Florida’s gaming industry, mainly by ratifying a newly renegotiated compact with the Seminole Tribe of Florida and by separating pari-mutuel racing from the card games which have come to dominate those facilities.

A panel passed all three bills sponsored by its Chairman Rep. Jose Felix “Pepi” Diaz by narrow majorities and with defections from Diaz’s fellow members of the GOP majority.

The committee passed bills to give necessary legislative approval to the new compact agreed to the Seminoles and Gov. Rick Scott; change state gaming laws to allow for “decoupling” greyhound racing and casino-style gaming; and create a requirement that any subsequent expansion of gaming would require a statewide referendum.

Most lawmakers resided somewhere in a gray area that was wary of expansion, but willing to accept it if they perceived they were getting a good deal. Rep. John Wood was not among them. He joined a pair of Democrats on the panel in staunch opposition to the idea of expansion itself.

“I’m not convinced we need gaming in Florida,” said Wood. “The people that push for it need us, but we don’t need them.”

The panel also heard from several horse breeders and trainers, who pleaded with lawmakers to remove decoupling of greyhound racing and card games. In recent years the latter games have become much more popular than racing, causing an imbalance in the deal struck between the two industries decades ago in Tallahassee.

Florida Greyhound Association lobbyist Jeff Kottkamp, who served as lieutenant governor under Gov. Charlie Crist, said the compact as currently written would threaten the flow of tourists who come to Florida for its family-friendly atmosphere.

The bills dealing with the compact and parimutuels were combined by an amendment by Democratic Rep. Jared Moskowitz. The amendment binds them up should “similar” legislation pass, so that the new gaming rules cannot become law without ratifying the Seminole compact and vice versa.

The Senate Regulated Industries will take up a Senate companion bill, SPB 1602, on Tuesday at 1:30 p.m.

Democratic Rep. David Richardson said he voted down on the bills “as a matter of principle,” citing a lack of inclusion of Democrats in the conversation. South Florida counterpart Rep. Irv Slosberg and Democrat Rep. Darryl Rouson, for their part, voted in favor.

Wood introduced amendments on multiple occasions to make the legislation subject to voters approval. Those amendments failed, which Wood said led to his voting ‘No’ on the measures which passed.

Chairman Diaz said Wood’s amendment would weaken the state’s negotiating position with the Seminole Tribe.

Ryan Ray writes about campaigns and public policy in Tampa Bay and across the state. A contributor to FloridaPolitics.com and before that, The Florida Squeeze, he covers the Legislature as a member of the Florida Capitol Press Corps and has worked as a staffer on several campaigns. He can be reached at ryan@floridapolitics.com.

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