Gaming Interests Fund Florida Republicans, Democrats

Three days after the first-quarter fundraising deadline, Florida Senator Garrett Richter said expanded gambling legislation was dead this session. Before that, gambling interests gave the Florida GOP $682,000 and the Democratic Party $572,000. The Seminole Tribe gave $150,000 to each party and $500,000 to Governor Rick Scott (l.), who's negotiating a new compact with them and running for re-election.

In the first three months of this year, casino and other interests contributed millions of dollars in campaign funds to Florida Republicans and Democrats. Campaign finance reports indicate the Republican Party of Florida, led by Governor Rick Scott, raised nearly .4 million and the Florida Democratic Party raised nearly .2 million. Parimutuels and casino companies contributed 2,000 to the Florida GOP and 2,000 to the Democrats. The Seminole Tribe gave each party 0,000 and gave the governor 0,000.

Three days after the first-quarter fundraising deadline passed, state Senator Garrett Richter, chairman of the Senate Gaming Committee, said comprehensive legislation that would have allowed two casinos in South Florida, among other provisions, was dead. Senate President Don Gaetz said campaign contributions have no influence on passing or killing legislation. “We take campaign contributions all the time, Democrats and Republicans, from people we don’t agree with on every single issue,” Gaetz said. Former Senate President, State Senator Tom Lee, disagreed. “Up here, it’s always about the money,” he said.

Some of the larger Republican contributions came from the Seminole Tribe of Florida, Disney, utility companies, Genting-affiliated companies, Florida’s two largest sugar growers and the state’s largest health insurance company. Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross gave the party $250,000, as legislators debate a bill that would allow professional franchises to qualify for tax rebates from the state. A similar bill that would have helped pay for renovations to Sun Life Stadium, where the Dolphins play, died last year.

The Seminole Tribe of Florida and Disney also gave to the Democrats. The party also received significant contributions from a campaign committee affiliated with former Republican Governor Charlie Crist is expected to announce that he’s running for governor as a Democrat.

In other news from Tallahassee, several members of the Senate Gaming Committee asked to pull a controversial bill that would allow greyhound tracks to reduce the number of races. The committee asked for a full staff analysis instead. The committee did support a bill that would require the state Division of Pari-Mutuel Wagering to keep records of all greyhound racing injuries at Florida’s 13 dog racing tracks.

The move was in response to decreasing bets at greyhound races and increasing proceeds at poker rooms, in particular at the Naples-Fort Myers Greyhound Racing and Poker Room, which leads the nation in greyhound races, running 3,500 annually. Bonita Springs track owners want to decouple state-mandated dog races from the more popular and lucrative poker room. The racetrack has been losing more than $2 million a year and Florida’s 13 greyhound tracks have been losing a combined $35 million a year. Poker rooms are keeping most parimutuels open.

Florida is one of only seven states that still allow greyhound racing. More than half of the 21 dog tracks still operating in the U.S. are located in Florida, where 8,000 dogs participate.

Said Ron Book of the Naples-Fort Myers Kennel Club, “The track in Naples-Fort Myers is the poster child why decoupling is necessary. We’re required to run 4,000 races each year in order to keep our license active. It’s not necessary. We will never stop racing in Fort Myers. We will never stop. We will have a limited card. But it’s not right to require a number of races. The law has seen its time pass.”

Izzy Havenick, whose family owns the Bonita Springs track and Magic City Casino in Miami, added, “We will continue to put on a great product to the person searching for greyhound racing entertainment in Bonita Springs. With decoupling, everybody can make money and not just have us losing money.”

Greyhound owners such as Jim Blanchard oppose decoupling. “Eliminating dog racing doesn’t benefit anybody on the racing side. It benefits only one person and that’s the racetracks.”

Meanwhile, Scott has been negotiating a provision of the state’s gaming compact with the Seminole tribe that will expire next year. Scott’s general counsel, Pete Antonacci, recently traveled to Fort Lauderdale to meet with tribal lawyers; last December Antonacci hired two Minnesota law firms that specialize in tribal law to “provide advice and assistance on tribal-state compact negotiations.” In addition, Scott’s office asked legislators to stop gambling-measure talks, prompting House Speaker Will to declare “lights are out” on gambling legislation this session.

Crist negotiated the current compact in 2009 and the legislature approved it in 2010. Under the agreement, the tribe agreed to pay at least $234 million a year in exchange for the exclusive right to operate slot machines at four casinos outside of Miami-Dade and Broward. The tribe also got exclusive rights to blackjack, chemin de fer and baccarat at the Hard Rock Casinos near Hollywood and Tampa and three other casinos. If the state does allows destination casino resorts in Miami-Dade and Broward counties, or allows expanded gambling at pari-mutuels, the tribe can stop making payments.

The current agreement has generated more than $1 billion in revenue for the state over the past five years. Observers have said Scott wants to double the guaranteed revenues to a minimum of $2 billion over five years. The Spectrum Gaming Group, which analyzed Florida gaming for the legislature last year, estimated the Seminoles make $2.06 billion annually from combined slot and card game revenues at its seven casinos. The Spectrum report also said the eight casinos in Miami-Dade and Broward make $2.7 billion from their combined slot revenue. As a result several legislators want Scott to expand the parimutuels.

State Senator Jack Latvala said, “I will lead the effort to defeat ratification of the compact if it’s a sellout to the Indians the way the last one was. We penalized a lot of other facilities that had been in business in Florida for 60 and 80 years and gave the Indians a monopoly. I think that’s wrong.” House Democrats also may vote together to defeat any compact that does not lower gaming tax rates or allow parimutuels to offer expanded gambling.

John Sowinski said his group, the Orlando-based No Casinos, supports renewing the compact with the Seminoles but “would oppose anything that gave them more. The revenue arrangement serves as a useful deterrent. It’s like mutually assured destruction from a gambling standpoint.”

Also in Florida, Jennifer Moon, director of the Miami-Dade County Office of Management and Budget, said for fiscal 2013-14, the county will receive $3.2 million in slot machine revenue–just one-third of the $9.8 million in average annual slot machine revenue expected when slots were approved at the former Flagler Dog Track (now Magic City Casino), Calder Casino & Race Course and Casino Miami Jai-Alai. Moon said the lower than expected revenues will not affect county services. “Because this is such an unstable source of revenue, we don’t project it to be used in the budget the year it’s earned. It goes into a fund, and then the following year it’s budgeted,” she explained.

The average income per machine per day–$214–also has been lower than originally anticipated. The average peaked at $216.65 in 2010-11, and dropped to $195.85 the following year. For 2013-14 the average is expected to be $202.01.

Under an agreement, the county receives 1.5 percent from the total slot revenue at parimutuels up to $250 million, and 2 percent above that. The agreement was drafted shortly after a statewide referendum allowed Miami-Dade and Broward voters to decide if slot machines would be allowed at parimutuels. The issue passed in 2008.

And in Summerfield, where the new Quarter Horse racetrack Oxford Downs opened April 7, the Ocala-based Florida Thoroughbred Breeders’ and Owners’ Association have declared the racing surface is unsafe for horses and jockeys. In addition, the group is concerned that Oxford Downs could be the first of several Quarter Horse tracks the Florida Division of Pari-Mutuel Wagering might allow to open without accreditation from the American Quarter Horse Racing Association.

Lonny Powell, chief executive officer of the FTBOA, said, “What Oxford Downs is doing is all about poker. They are not following through with what they promised for a track and buildings.” Powell said Oxford Downs’ opening day was “a travesty, and is not legitimate horse racing.” For its one-day meet on April 7, there were no wood rails or safety rails at the track, nor are there any permanent buildings on the site.

Tony Mendola, the track’s president and principal owner, responded, “Oxford Downs has met all of the state’s requirements and passed numerous benchmarks and inspections required for them to be granted a live racing license. The owner and operators of Oxford Downs are dedicated to creating a facility that brings the economic benefits of horse racing to Marion County. Local Quarter Horse racing provides the opportunity for horsemen who raise and train their horses right here in our community to also race here instead of having to travel to venues in South Florida or out of state to race.” Mendola said several upgrades are planned before the racing season resumes in July.

Florida law requires a Quarter Horse track to have a purse agreement with a horsemen’s group whose members are the majority of local owners and trainers. Oxford Downs has a purse contract with the newly formed Central Florida Horsemen’s Association, whose members provided horses for the April 7 races.

The Ocala Breeders’ Sales Company, the Florida Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association, the Florida Quarter Horse Racing Association and the Florida Quarter Horse Breeders and Owners Association have joined the FTBOA to oppose Oxford Downs.

OBS president Tom Ventura said, “A track should not be allowed to have a parimutuel race that is not approved by a national body, in this case the American Quarter Horse Association, that provides oversight and standards that provide critical layers of protection for the horses, jockeys and the public. It looks like a field that has been worked on to use as a racetrack, but the backstretch looks more like a motocross course than like a racetrack.”

Mendola, however, said Oxford Downs’ safety standards “exceed the safety of many tracks currently conducting races because it was designed to be in line with proposed safety standards for racing which take greater precautions to protect the horses and jockeys than the current requirements.”

Oxford Downs plans to offer 20 race cards, two per day, between July 1-10, and it will be eligible to offer full-card simulcasts after it has 20 race cards in fiscal 2014-15. This fall the facility plans to open a building a poker room and simulcast center.