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House takes giant steps in gambling negotiation

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The Florida House made several major offers Wednesday to get a gambling deal done this session, including authorizing decoupling for dog and horse tracks if county voters OK it in a local referendum.

House and Senate negotiators met in the morning in their ongoing effort to agree on an omnibus gambling bill for 2017, including an agreement with the Seminole Tribe of Florida to continue blackjack exclusivity in exchange for $3 billion over seven years.

State law requires dog and horse tracks to run live races if they wish to offer other gambling such as cardrooms. Getting rid of that requirement is known as decoupling.

Pari-mutuel owners want decoupling because the audience for dog and horse races – and thus the money bet on them – continues to decline every year, they say. Horse and dog interests say it will kill their industry.

As the House moves toward the Senate—conference chair and Sen. Bill Galvano, a Bradenton Republican, called the House offer “serious” and “substantial”—gambling expansion opponents railed against the latest moves.

“This conference committee process is a prime example why gambling expansion should not be subject to legislative ‘sausage making’ (because) it results in gambling creep,” said John Sowinski, president of No Casinos.  “It is clear that there needs to be a bright line in the Florida Constitution that gives Florida voters the exclusive right to authorize gambling in our state.”

Sowinski also chairs a political committee aiming to get a constitutional amendment on the ballot in 2018 to give voters control over future casino gambling.

In other proposals, Rep. Jose Felix Diaz, the conference’s vice chair and a Miami-Dade Republican, offered:

— Authorizing blackjack, craps and roulette at all seven Seminole Tribe gambling facilities. Now, they offer blackjack at five casinos, including Tampa’s Hard Rock Hotel and Casino, and do not offer craps and roulette.

— Allowing a cut in the slot machine tax that the Seminoles and pari-mutuels pay if they agree to reduce the number of slot machines they have on the floor. For instance, a casino that agree to go down to 1,500 slots would pay 25 percent instead of 35 percent in tax on slots revenue.

— OK’ing certain designated-player games “if approved in a countywide referendum.” Designated-player games are a hybrid between blackjack and poker, where the bank is supposed to revolve among the players. But regulators have said card rooms were flouting state law by allowing third-party companies to buy their way into the games, using a worker to act as a virtual bank that rarely or never rotated, amounting to a sham, one judge determined.

— Allowing the Seminoles to offer daily fantasy sports play if the state legalizes it, but the Seminoles would have to agree it doesn’t violate any exclusive rights to gambling they enjoy.

This story will be updated later. A copy of the offer is below:

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 [email protected]

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