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Deal can put end to limits on slots

A compromise by lawmakers appears set to allow Vegas-style slots in Broward. The state's tribal casinos likely would follow suit.

Published December 3, 2005

TALLAHASSEE - After a year of struggling against antigambling sentiments in the Florida Legislature, Broward County parimutuels appear likely to win legislative approval next week for Las Vegas-style slot machines.

That could open the door for the state's seven tribal casinos to do the same.

House Speaker Allan Bense and Senate President Tom Lee distributed near-matching versions of a bill that would allow slot machines in Broward.

Both bills would tax gambling proceeds at one of the highest rates in the country, far more than the parimutuels had offered. The money must be spent on education under a constitutional amendment Florida voters approved in 2004.

Bense and Lee also outlined the agenda for the special session that starts Monday.

Slot machine legislation is one of two must items.

The other is finalizing details of a pilot program for using managed care-style health coverage for Medicaid patients in Broward and Duval counties.

But Bense, R-Panama City, and Lee, R-Valrico, also agreed to consider seven other issues, including compensation for Wilton Dedge, a Brevard County man wrongly incarcerated for 22 years; property tax breaks for 2005 hurricane victims; and new disclosure requirements for lobbyists and fundraising.

The two chambers still must negotiate significant differences on slot machines, such as how many machines to allow at each site and at what rate to tax them.

But Friday's agreement over the use of Las Vegas-type machines has both chambers predicting they can reach a full agreement by the scheduled adjournment Friday.

"I'm encouraged," said Daniel Adkins, chairman of the parimutuel-backed Floridians for a Level Playing Field that pushed the November 2004 citizens initiative. He is also vice president of Hollywood Greyhound Track.

"Some of the specifics, such as tax rate and number of machines are insane. ... But it's a starting point," he said. "I know there will be a lot of discussion next week."

Less clear Friday was how the other major agenda item would fare in next week's special session - a proposal to overhaul Medicaid in two counties.

Gov. Jeb Bush, alarmed by skyrocketing costs in the health plan for the poor and disabled, has convinced the federal government to let him turn much of Medicaid services over to managed care companies in Duval and Broward counties.

Now he needs the Legislature's approval. If successful, the proposed project would serve as a statewide model.

But the prospect of such a radical shift is causing consternation among many lawmakers as they head into an election year. Social service advocates will push hard to exempt certain Medicaid populations.

A big reason for Bush's opposition to adding Vegas-style machines to select locations is a federal law that requires states to permit Indian tribes to add any new form of gambling made legal in the state.

Alan Levine, Bush's Medicaid chief, has spent weeks lobbying lawmakers to take the plunge.

Many other issues likely won't get heard, including Democratic proposals to provide more relief to hurricane victims and a business-backed plan to tinker with the sex-offender-screening requirements under the Jessica Lunsford Act.

State leaders have been leery of doing such work in a brief special session.

"To me, there almost has to be blood in the streets before we have an issue before a special session," Bense said.

Friday's partial agreement on slots comes more than a year after voters statewide agreed to allow existing parimutuels in Broward and Miami-Dade counties to install slot machines, if local voters agreed.

Broward County subsequently voted yes, but Miami-Dade voted no.

Then the Legislature couldn't reach agreement during its regular 2005 session on the legislation required to set up the new gambling program.

Still, any victory next week for the parimutuels, which feel under increasing competition from unregulated Indian casinos and gambling ships, could be short-lived.

Bush is a staunch opponent of gambling and has yet to say if he'll support the deal. In addition, Bush, Lee and Bense have all said they want lawmakers to place another ballot measure before voters in November to repeal the constitutional amendment permitting slot machines.

Adkins said he can't worry about that, yet.

"The only way I can address that is that I'm in a race with blinders on," he said Friday. "I'll deal with the next race after this one's resolved."

A big reason for Bush's opposition to adding Vegas-style machines to select locations is a federal law that requires states to permit Indian tribes to add any new form of gambling made legal in the state.

Bush said voters across the state didn't realize that by allowing Broward and Miami-Dade parimutuels to add slot machines, they also were allowing the expansion at seven Indian casinos in those counties, as well as in Collier, Glades, Hillsborough and Pasco.

Currently, the state's Indian casinos have "Class II" or bingo-style machines, in which gamblers only can win from the pool of bets made by others on the machines.

Vegas-style, or "Class III," allows gamblers to bet against a House jackpot, a setup that can be more lucrative for the gambling industry.

Even as parimutuels have won a major issue, they're far from satisfied with the proposed taxes and machine counts.

Both the House's proposal, 55 percent tax, and the Senate's, 45 percent, would be among the highest in the country. The parimutuels had agreed to give 30 percent of the proceeds if the Legislature failed to agree on a tax rate.

Across seven states that allowed slot machines in 2004, the average tax rate was 35 percent, according to legislative staff analysis. Only Rhode Island, at 61 percent, is higher than those proposed in Florida, though legislative staff have said that Rhode Island isn't comparable because its parimutuels don't own their machines.

The House has proposed no more than 1,000 machines per facility; the Senate, 2,000 machines.

Parimutuel supporters say such restrictions will handicap them and limit any state tax collections.

But state leaders, annoyed the parimutuels circumvented lawmakers to legalize slot machines, offer few apologies.

--Joni James can be reached at 850 224-7263 or

--Steve Bousquet can be reached at 850 224-7263 or

[Last modified December 3, 2005, 01:23:08]

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