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Lawmaker fires first shot to limit slots

A powerful House committee chairman offers a proposal with tight restrictions on the slot machines allowed in Broward County.

By JONI JAMES
Published March 25, 2005


TALLAHASSEE - For voters who may have thought approval of slot machines at Broward County parimutuels would mean Las Vegas-style gambling: Think again.

In the first formal legislative proposal, unveiled Thursday, the chairman of a powerful House committee pitched a regulatory plan the parimutuel industry says will dramatically limit its ability to capitalize on the gambling expansion or provide significant new money for education.

Among the highlights of Rep. Frank Attkisson's proposal:

The four parimutuels in Broward County allowed to add slot machines would be limited to the bingo-style machines already found in the state's Indian casinos, not the more lucrative kind found in Vegas, which parimutuels argue they're entitled to.

The Broward parimutuels would be responsible for the entire $438-million in tax revenue the industry had suggested in campaign materials that slot machines would generate if both Broward and Miami-Dade counties approved the machines. Miami-Dade voters rejected the proposal.

The state would impose a 10 percent tax on any other new products or services a parimutuel adds along with slot machines, such as a restaurant or gift shop.

The slot machine hall could operate only between noon and midnight.

Local tourist development councils across Florida would be empowered to demand concessions from the parimutuels if they can prove that slot machines have negatively affected their tourism business.

Attkisson, R-Kissimmee, said such stringent measures, similar to many sought by Gov. Jeb Bush, are appropriate for an industry that chose to circumvent the Legislature.

Seven parimutuels in Broward and Miami-Dade county pushed the state constitutional amendment on November's ballot that authorized slot machines at existing parimutuels in those counties, as long as local voters agreed. On March 8, Broward voters approved the idea; Miami-Dade rejected it.

"The ideas were not vetted out. Nobody asked anybody in a competitive tourist market would they be willing to give up a couple of nights' work because their market got cannibalized by the South Florida tourism industry," said Attkisson, chairman of the House Business Regulation Committee. "If that had ever come out in the campaign, then all of a sudden I think more people would have voted no."

Attkisson said Walt Disney World, which sits just west of his district, didn't influence his plan; company officials told him they didn't see the slot machines as a threat. But in a committee room filled with parimutuel lobbyists Thursday, Attkisson's proposed bill was quickly dubbed the "Disney bill."

Parimutuel officials argued Attkisson's protectionist plan would continue to put them at a competitive disadvantage with Florida's Indian casinos and gambling day cruises, both of which are unregulated.

And they said the drastic tax rate required to raise all $438-million annually from just four parimutuels would severely hamper their ability to build facilities to attract the gamblers needed to raise that amount in taxes.

"This is almost like telling Barry Bonds to hit 50 home runs while he's blindfolded and holding a plastic bat," complained former Florida Education Secretary Jim Horne. The former Republican state senator is a spokesman for Floridians for a Level Playing Field, the parimutuel-backed group that pushed the statewide ballot measure.

"On steroids or not, there is no way he could do that," Horne said.

It looked unlikely Thursday, even in Attkisson's Republican-dominated committee, that the plan would emerge unchanged. And observers expect the Senate's implementation plan, which isn't likely to be unveiled until the first week of April, to be far more lenient.

How the two chambers will compromise is far from clear, prompting one antigambling advocate to muse Thursday that lawmakers could leave the annual legislative session without any plan at all, pushing the matter into the courts where it could languish for years.

"I have a new strategy for delaying the implementation of this," said Rep. Randy Johnson, R-Celebration, who is also chairman of No Casinos. "Just let the committees do their work. They may never come to agreement."

Indeed, in the House Thursday, several committee members expressed amazement at the sheer scope of the proposed regulation and questioned Attkisson for nearly two hours about most every aspect of the bill. The committee is expected to vote Thursday on the plan.

"This bill may set the new record for the number of amendments," committee member Rep. Carlos Lopez-Cantera, R-Miami, predicted. "Some of this, the 10-percent royalty (tax) just doesn't seem fair."

Several Republican committee members questioned Attkisson's insistence that the bill limit parimutuels to bingo-style machines.

Rep. Charles Dean, R-Inverness, argued Attkisson's plan would cause Florida to lose a key opportunity to win concessions from the Miccosukee and Seminole Indians.

At Indian casinos in Florida, including the Seminoles' Hard Rock Casino in Tampa, gamblers use machines that mimic bingo and play each other. Those are called "Class II" machines. But in Vegas, a player's chance of winning is the same every time, and each machine operates independently. Federal law calls that "Class III" gambling.

Parimutuels and the Indian tribes contend the constitutional amendment voters approved in November allowing "slot machines" refers to Class III machines. But Attkisson, Bush and other lawmakers claim otherwise.

Under federal Indian gaming law, tribes are entitled to offer any kind of gambling allowed elsewhere in the state - though federal law requires tribes to negotiate a compact with a state before implementing any Class III gaming.

"This is an opportunity to get the Indian nations to negotiate with the state and get even more money for education," said Dean, a former Citrus County sheriff.

Joni James can be reached at 850 224-7263 or jjames@sptimes.com

[Last modified March 25, 2005, 01:26:05]


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