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Slots bill has no luck in House -- for now

By LUCY MORGAN, Times Tallahassee Bureau Chief

© St. Petersburg Times
published March 19, 2003

TALLAHASSEE -- A bill to legalize slot machines at 31 parimutuel facilities in Florida was killed Tuesday in a House subcommittee, but supporters refused to declare it dead.

On a 6-3 party-line vote, Republicans on the Subcommittee on Gaming and Parimutuel sided with Speaker Johnnie Byrd and rejected a bill that could have raised as much as $1.5-billion in a desperate budget year.

The three Democrats on the committee urged Republicans to keep the bill alive as an option to avoid deep budget cuts. The state's parimutuels, meanwhile, want the extra income that would flow from the machines.

Senate President Jim King, who supports the so-called video lottery terminals, said Tuesday's vote seriously wounded the measure but didn't kill it. The Senate will continue with its version of the bill and hope it can be revived if the Legislature needs the money.

King said some lawmakers prefer video lottery terminals to increasing taxes.

Lobbyists predicted the bill will be resurrected once lawmakers discover they cannot make ends meet without extra income.

"On day 58 or 59, it will become a funding issue that needs to be considered," predicted Wilbur Brewton, lobbyist for Calder Race Course near Miami.

Without a way to pick up extra money, Florida's horse tracks cannot compete with West Virginia, Iowa and New York where lawmakers voted to allow video lottery terminals, Brewton added.

"West Virginia has a crummy track, but they are paying twice as much in purses as we can pay at Calder," Brewton said.

"We are in a state of emergency," argued Rep. James Harper, D-West Palm Beach.

Others complained that the proposal was being sentenced to death without an adequate hearing or time to evaluate its impact.

"I've heard some people talk about casinos, but this bill is not about casinos," argued Rep. Terry Fields, D-Jacksonville. "It's an opportunity to enhance a beleaguered industry."

But Rep. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, urged the committee to "look at this as statesmen" and vote against an expansion of gambling in the state. Three times Florida voters have rejected casinos, Baxley noted.

Rep. Ron Greenstein, D-Coconut Creek, sponsor of the bill, argued that Florida already has casino-style gambling in Florida with its ships to nowhere that operate without paying a tax or regulation.

"I think this issue will still be around on day 58 and 59," he said. "This is not the final product."

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