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Tax relief? Try gambling

Lawmakers consider gaming to help them cut property taxes.

By STEVE BOUSQUET
Published May 1, 2007


TALLAHASSEE - A major expansion of gambling in Florida emerged Monday as a possible new piece of the property tax cut puzzle that has defied resolution for two months.

On 30 minutes' public notice, a House council passed a bill that would allow 11 existing gambling sites in Florida to add 1, 000 coin- or token-operated video lottery terminals each.

Three affected sites are in the Tampa Bay area: Derby Lane in St. Petersburg, Tampa Bay Downs and Tampa Greyhound Track.

Backed by a coalition of veteran lobbyists, the video lottery idea surfaced at a time when negotiations on property tax cuts are at impasse, with Floridians demanding relief. The new machines would pump at least $500-million in tax revenue into state coffers each year, which adds much-needed flexibility to tax cut negotiations going on right now.

Members of both chambers spent Monday studying savings of different tax plans and seeking elusive common ground.

"Communication is important, " said Senate President Ken Pruitt, R-Port St. Lucie. "I'm still very optimistic."

The 26-page video lottery provision was tacked onto an obscure bill HB 1551 giving the Florida Lottery authority to trademark its games. The machines allow gamblers to play a form of bingo against others at the same location.

Four of the gambling sites are in Miami-Dade, including a jai-alai fronton and the shuttered thoroughbred track in Hialeah. Others are in Jacksonville, West Palm Beach, Naples and Ocala.

To qualify, a gambling center must be within 40 miles of an existing tribal casino or in a county with a population greater than 800, 000.

Unlike thousands of new slot machines at four Broward County parimutuels, the new sites would not be subject to public approval in a local referendum.

The new terminals would be taxed at the same 50 percent rate as the Broward slots. The bill directs the money be used to offset local property taxes that must be raised to support public schools, a tax known as the required local effort - RLE in policy circles.

"It's a tax cut, " said Rep. Stan Mayfield, R-Vero Beach, chairman of the House council that passed the bill.

The room, filled with lobbyists for gambling interests, erupted in knowing laughter at the link to property tax reduction.

Taxpayers will pay $545-million more in required local effort next year to run schools, after lawmakers made a decision to leave the tax rate unchanged even though rising property values have increased the revenue generated by the tax.

It's unclear what Gov. Charlie Crist will do if the gambling bill passes the House and Senate.

"If something like that were to come to my desk, obviously I'd have to look at it very closely, " Crist said.

Sen. Daniel Webster, R-Winter Garden, said the House was clearly making gambling a part of the tax debate. With Webster the Senate's lead negotiator with the House on property taxes, and an avowed opponent of more gambling in the state, this development would seem to be another obstacle to compromise.

But Webster sees a rising tide for the video games, called VLTs.

"VLTs would have passed by now except for Jeb Bush, " Webster said. "It's not a new issue, it's a new situation."

The House is pushing ahead with a video lottery terminal over the opposition of House Speaker Marco Rubio, R-West Miami, who repeated his opposition to any expansion of gaming.

Rubio campaigned with Bush to help defeat an earlier casino gambling referendum in Miami-Dade.

Rubio is employed by the law firm of Broad & Cassel, which has recently been retained to do limited legal work for Flagler Dog Track in Miami. A Rubio spokeswoman said the attorney handling the Flagler account was recently hired by the firm and has a long history of representing the track.

Rubio said he was not aware that his firm was being retained by the track.

The sponsor of the video lottery is one of Rubio's closest lieutenants, Rep. David Rivera, R-Miami, who defended it by noting that tribal casinos that offer similar video lottery terminals are "unregulated and untaxed."

At Monday's brief hearing, Nathan Dunn of Florida Family Action criticized the move and the scant public notice of a change he called "a significant if not the largest expansion of gambling in Florida's history."

The expansion of video lottery terminals has bipartisan support in the Senate, so passage is considered likely if the bill gets through the House.

But with four days left in the regular session, that may not be a sure thing.

A separate slot-machine bill, expanding the number of machines at the four Broward gambling dens, squeaked through the House on a 61-52 vote Monday.

Times staff writer Alex Leary and researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this report. Steve Bousquet can be reached at bousquet@sptimes.com or (850) 224-7263.