March 1, 2016
Tom LaMarra, Blood-Horse

Major gambling bills tied to a $3 billion compact with the Seminole tribe were removed from a Florida Senate committee agenda March 1 and may not be addressed before the end of the current legislative session.

The compact bill is predicated on a 20-year deal Gov. Rick Scott signed with the tribe, which operates seven casinos in the state. A second bill that alters Scott’s deal with the Seminoles includes an expansion of slot machines to new locations in Florida as well as provisions to end live requirements at most pari-mutuel facilities.

The House Finance and Tax Committee Feb. 29 passed the gambling measure. On March 1, the Senate Appropriations Committee took a pass on similar legislation; the panel will meet again March 3.

Committee chairman Sen. Tom Lee indicated the gambling bills probably will go no further during the session that ends March 11.

Rep. Jose Diaz and Sen. Robert Bradley, who were part of the negotiating team on the proposed Seminole compact, had indicated accompanying legislation that alters the terms of the deal would be problematic. An attorney for the tribe, after the House committee vote Feb. 29, told Florida news outlets the changes aren’t acceptable.

The tribe had agreed to allow for a slots facility in Palm Beach County and a new one in Miami-Dade County. The House and Senate bills would allow for at least six slots facilities around the state.

The tribe already has a compact with the state but has a lawsuit pending over alleged violations.

Decoupling—removing statutory requirements for tracks to offer live racing in order to operate slots or card rooms—is being sold as a way to reduce gambling in Florida. It has the support of greyhound racing opponents as well as tracks that offer Quarter Horse and Standardbred racing.

During the United States Trotting Association board meeting Feb. 28 in Ohio, Joe Pennacchio, president of the Florida Standardbred Breeders and Owners Association, said the gaming bills in Florida “have gotten very heavy in the House and Senate.” He said some members of the pari-mutuel industry raised about $5 million to push for decoupling; they also would pay a lower tax on their slots business.

Isle of Capri Casinos, which owns Isle Casino at Pompano Park, the only harness track in the state, supports decoupling.

The bill that passed the House Finance and Tax Committee states that if a track allows its racing license to lie dormant for 24 months, it can’t renewed—or transferred to another entity like a horsemen’s group.

“It would kill harness racing in Florida forever,” Pennacchio said. “It is the most egregious bill I’ve ever seen written. I don’t understand why they want to kill us.”

There is no statutory language for the percentage of revenue from slots that must go to purses; tracks and horsemen’s groups handle that through contract.