Decision Time in Florida: Sun, Fun and… Nonstop Gambling?

By GARY FINEOUT, Associated Press

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — For years, politicians in the Sunshine State have struggled over whether they want to let glitzy Las-Vegas style casinos sprout beside Florida’s sugar-white beaches.

The Republican-controlled Legislature, split among factions including those worried that more gambling would harm Florida’s “family-friendly” brand, has never reached consensus. But this year GOP leaders insist they may achieve a breakthrough — prompted by ongoing court battles and fatigue with a seemingly never-ending gambling debate.

“Inaction is not a choice,” said Sen. Bill Galvano, a powerful Bradenton Republican who is sponsoring a major gambling bill this year.

The promise of a breakthrough to end years of impasse, however, would require major compromises in the 60-day session opening next week.

Galvano and his fellow senators are advancing a proposal that would expand gambling far beyond its current locations, while House Republicans are backing a plan to “freeze” gambling as it now exists in the state.

Gambling is supposed to be “illegal” in Florida, but really isn’t. There’s plenty of it around the state, often tucked away from theme parks and beaches in locations known mostly to locals and retirees who flock to Florida each winter.

While the state lacks high-end casinos like Las Vegas, the Seminole Tribe operates several casinos, including Hard Rock hotels and casinos in Tampa and Hollywood. Dog and horse tracks are scattered statewide, but only those in south Florida have been permitted to install slot machines, while only the tribe is authorized to offer blackjack.

Any attempt to change the state’s byzantine gambling laws will face a gauntlet of competing interests. They range from animal rights activists who want dog tracks to drop greyhound racing to the owners of existing tracks fearful that the Seminole Tribe and out-of-state corporations will squeeze them out of business unless they are granted concessions similar to those given the tribe.

“There are long-term gaming operators in this state in the need of a fair modern business model in order to compete and grow,” said Dan Adkins, vice president of Mardi Gras Casino in Hallandale Beach.

Then there are state business groups worried that expanding gambling will harm Disney World and other family friendly theme parks in a state that welcomes more than 100 million visitors annually. And others are opposed to expanding gambling on moral and ethical grounds.

David Tarbert, a Tallahassee attorney who notes he was addicted to gambling for 36 years, said lawmakers should again this year reject any proposals to make gambling more widespread. He said politicians interested in expanding gambling want to raise more money without raising taxes.

“I think it is essentially getting government revenue on the backs of people’s addiction,” said Tarbert, who helped establish a Gamblers Anonymous chapter in the state capital two years ago. “I think it’s morally reprehensible.”

There’s no question that Florida’s government takes in money due to gambling. The current deal with the Seminole Tribe has resulted in nearly $2 billion since 2010.

But the push this year isn’t just about money. Part of it is due to court battles that could alter Florida’s gambling landscape — unless legislators act.

In one pending case, the Florida Supreme Court could allow dog and horse tracks in eight counties to add slot machines.

Another legal battle pits the Seminoles against the state. Seven years ago the state reached an exclusive deal to let the tribe offer blackjack at many of its Florida casinos, but that provision expired in 2015.

Republican leaders say they want to resolve the court battles and constant turmoil with some sort of comprehensive overhaul.  But the Senate and House have to reconcile their major differences.

The Senate bill would allow slot machines at tracks in several counties outside of South Florida. It also would allow the Seminole Tribe to add craps and roulette at its casinos — and let track owners keep their gambling operations even if they drop live racing.

But the House proposal would block any additional gambling and instead just let the Seminoles keep blackjack and slot machines at its casinos for 20 years. While saying the House is open to negotiations, the sponsor of that legislation declared that the Senate proposal “was a non-starter” in the House.

“This is a long term deal,” said Rep. Mike La Rosa, a St. Cloud Republican. “So we can’t be afraid to step away from the table if we ultimately have to.”

Follow Gary Fineout on Twitter: http://twitter.com/fineout

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