Florida Panel Holds First Gambling Hearing

At a recent meeting of the Florida House Select Committee on Gaming, Speaker Will Weatherford (l.) said no expanded gambling legislation will pass without a constitutional amendment letting voters approve future gambling laws. Gulfstream Park racetrack lost its bid, meanwhile, to use its racino license to team with Genting for a massive casino project in Miami.

The Florida House Select Committee on Gaming recently took up a 411-page plan and proposed constitutional amendment that would change gambling laws in the state. The plan would create a gaming commission, eliminate inactive parimutuel permits and regulate barrel racing, among other actions. The constitutional amendment would let voters decide if gambling should be expanded in the future, beyond any legislation the legislature might approve this session. House Speaker Will Weatherford has said his chamber will not pass any gambling legislation without the amendment, which would require 60 percent voter approval if it reaches the November ballot.

Weatherford also said he wants Governor Rick Scott to conclude compact negotiations with the Seminole Tribe of Florida. Political consultant and college instructor Mike Haridopolos, who is advising Scott, explained, “The compact is important because the Seminoles are a sovereign nation. They are not citizens of Florida. We have to negotiate with them. What we offered back in 2007–it took effect in 2010—was exclusive rights to offer games, primarily blackjack and baccarat. In exchange, they would give us money over five years, from 2010 to 2015, at a minimum, of $1 billion. If they generated even more money, more money would go to the state. Last year, instead of $200 million coming in, we saw $233 million. But if the Seminoles don’t get exclusivity, if we give blackjack and baccarat to other facilities, they no longer have to pay.”

Haridopolos added, “The House and Senate are so far apart right now, a lot of people think nothing will pass and the only one that could happen is the new compact with the Seminole Indians. The Senate is more pro-gaming. The House is more socially conservative. Disney and Orlando tourism has a big impact on those state House members.”

The House and Senate do agree on decreasing the number of races greyhound tracks are required to run. The measure is opposed by some representatives and greyhound breeders and trainers. Another bill would end steeplechases and parimutuel Quarter Horse barrel racing. The measure arose from Gretna Racing’s attempt to resume parimutuel barrel racing, after the Florida Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association and Florida Quarter Horse Racing Association complained that Gretna was seeking a low-cost way to have a poker room and take simulcasts. The First District Court of Appeal in Tallahassee recently denied the track’s request for a re-hearing on the issue.

State Rep. Matt Gaetz said the state needs to put an end to “sham” activities “lashed” to parimutuel licenses. “When I say a sham activity I mean anything that we’re forcing people to do that they don’t want to do that they’re losing money on. It’s just a joke. If we’re going to do this I would decouple all of these activities like jai alai, like Quarter Horse racing. And I would just say if they’re operating now and we’ve given them a permit, let them operate. Don’t make them do these loss leaders and let’s just end the sham.”

Gaetz added any action this year “would be our last bite of the apple.” State Rep. Jim Waldman responded, “You would like to tie the hands of future legislators but allow us to do what we want to do?” Gaetz replied, “That is correct.”

In the Senate, State Senator John Thrasher said new versions of Internet cafes may be legal and not in violation of the state statute passed last year in response to a scandal that closed the strip-mall cafes across the state last spring. Thrasher noted more than 60 of the businesses have opened in Jacksonville alone since the statute was enacted, and more are appearing throughout central and northern Florida. Jacksonville attorney Kelly Mathis, the masterminded behind the illegal internet café operation, began serving a six-year sentence for racketeering and money laundering.

Also in Florida, although there has been no formal announcement, there is plenty of talk about the Seminole Tribe’s plans to expand the Hard Rock hotel chain, possibly with a casino, on tribal land in Collier County near Immokalee. Area residents were tipped off a few weeks ago when Seminole officials approached the Immokalee Water and Sewer District about reconnecting to the casino’s own system. District Executive Director Eva Deyo said, “They want to break ground on the hotel in April and finish in December. They are also expanding the casino at the same time.” Added District Board Chair Fred Thomas, “They are planning to put up a four-story, 100-room hotel. It’s going to be up against the back of the casino.”

The existing Immokalee casino opened in 1994 as a bingo parlor with 300 slots. Today the 75,000 square foot property offers 1,200 slots and 30 table games, and employs 750 people. “One of our blessings is the casino. It brings a lot of traffic to Immokalee,” Thomas said.

Not every Florida community considers Seminole gaming a blessing. The town of Davie, which surrounds the Seminole Reservation in Fort Lauderdale, is fighting the tribe’s plans to place in trust 10 acres adjacent to its Seminole Hard Rock Resort & Casino. Tribal officials said the land would be used for housing. But Davie leaders said the land, a former mobile home park that recently was leveled, would be used to expand the casino. The Department of Interior is reviewing the situation.

That Seminole casino could get some competition if Florida Panthers President Michael Yormark successfully acquires 22 acres north of the team’s BB&T Center to build a destination casino.

The tribe had also been concerned that Gulfstream Park would be permitted to partner with Genting for a casino in Miami. That won’t happen now.

Florida’s Division of Parimutuel Wagering has rejected a bid by  Gulfstream Park to relocate one of two racing permits to the Miami bayfront, where it hopes to build a casino in a partnership with Genting Group. Other members of the partnership include the Florida Thoroughbred Breeders’ and Owners’ Association, and the Florida Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association.

In a ruling released March 14, the DPMW said it cannot legally allow a parimutuel permit to move across county lines. Gulfstream hoped to transfer its non-profit Gulfstream Park Thoroughbred After Racing Program from one property, located both in Broward and Miami-Dade counties, to a downtown Miami site, which is solely in Miami-Dade County.

Even so, the partners hope state lawmakers year will approve the transfer, said Lonny Powell, CEO of the thoroughbred group. “With legislators, we are emphasizing the non-profit aspects,” Powell told the Blood Horse. “The FTBOA and Genting are very active, with support of our other partners.”

Genting has invested heavily in South Florida, in hopes that destination resorts with gaming will eventually be approved there. The property in question is the former headquarters of the Miami Herald, acquired by Genting in 2011. Genting also owns and operates Resorts World New York Casino at Aqueduct Racetrack in New York and is building a similar megaresort in Las Vegas.

The House Gaming Committee could look at the Gulfstream proposal before the end of the session May 2.