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Supreme Court decision to stay out of slots highlights Palm Beach County case

Friday, April 27th, 2012 by Dara Kam

The Florida Supreme Court on Friday refused to wade into a lower court decision that opened the door for slot machines at pari-mutuels throughout the state, elevating a Palm Beach County challenge to a proposed slots referendum this fall.

The Supreme Court dismissed appeals by several Miami-Dade County pari-mutuels challenging whether slots should be limited to seven pari-mutuels in Miami-Dade and Broward counties.

That appellate court decision last fall opened the door for counties, including Palm Beach, to put referenda before voters allowing them to decide whether their pari-mutuels should be allowed to have more lucrative slot machine gambling.

Gambling lawyers throughout the state and Gov. Rick Scott’s administration officials were anxiously awaiting what many hoped would be a Supreme Court decision settling the issue.

Instead, focus is now on the Palm Beach County lawsuit filed by a Boca Raton woman last month. The Palm Beach court case could ripple throughout the state if Judge Janis Keyser yanks the referendum off the ballot.

“Obviously every pari-mutuel in the state is watching that with eager interest,” Marc Dunbar, an attorney who represents Gulfstream Race Track and who also is a part-owner of a Gretna horse track in Gadsden County, where he hopes to soon start slot machine gambling. “All of a sudden all eyes go to Palm Beach.”

Lawyers representing the county are expected to file their briefs Monday in the case.

County commissioners voted in December to place the referendum on the ballot in the hopes that a favorable vote would lead to slot machines at the Palm Beach County Kennel Club. Voters in three counties – Gadsden, Hamilton and Washington – have already signed off on the measures.

The Palm Beach County lawsuit filed by Boca Raton resident Sandra Medlicott centers on an opinion issued by Attorney General Pam Bondi earlier this year saying pari-mutuels should not be authorized to offer slots without changes to the state constitution or permission from the Legislature.

Comparison of House and Senate gambling bills

Thursday, February 2nd, 2012 by Dara Kam

The House released its version of a gambling proposal, slated for its first committee vote tomorrow, that opens the door casinos in what could be a permanent game-changer for Sunshine State tourism.

While both the House and Senate plans would allow up to three high-end “destination resorts” to open, the House proposal would limit them to Broward and Miami-Dade counties, where slot machines outside of Indian casinos are already up-and-running thanks to voter approval.

The two plans (HB 487, SB 710) include differences about who could give the casino licenses, who would oversee a new gambling agency and the future of Internet cafés.

- Internet cafés: HB 487 would ban them altogether. SB 710 would regulate them, charge operators $100 per terminal and allow local government to prohibit them.
- Games: SB 710 would allow pari-mutuels in the counties where destination resorts open to offer the same games that the casinos have, meaning dog and horse tracks and jai-alai frontons near the casinos could have blackjack, roulette or craps.
- Voter approval: Both bills would require voters to approve the destination resorts by referendum. But the House version would only allow the casinos to be licensed in Broward or Miami-Dade counties.
- Oversight: HB 487 would give the governor and the Florida Cabinet oversight of a new agency – the Department of Gaming Control. The governor and Cabinet would also choose which casino operators would get resort licenses. SB 710 would create a statewide gambling commission that would oversee the Department of Gaming. The commission would pick the casino vendors.
- Taxes: Both set a 10 percent tax rate for game revenues at the destination resorts and would lower the tax rate on slot machines at pari-mutuels (now 35 percent) in counties where a destination resort opens to 10 percent.

After two workshops, the House Business and Consumer Affairs Committee will vote on the bill tomorrow morning. The Senate Regulated Industries Committee approved Sen. Ellyn Bogdanoff’s version weeks ago but faces an uphill battle at its next stop in opponent John Thrasher’s Rules Committee.

‘Johnny’ and ‘Twiggy’ make the pitch to end greyhound racing

Tuesday, January 17th, 2012 by Dara Kam

"Johnny"

A pair of greyhounds did the marketing this morning for activists in the Capitol pushing an animal-friendly agenda.

Sen. Maria Sachs, D-Delray Beach, and Rep. Dana Young, R-Tampa, had “Johnny” and “Twiggy” on hand at a press conference for their proposal to allow dog tracks to keep their card rooms and other gambling activities but put an end to greyhound racing.

Sachs, whose district is home to the Palm Beach Kennel Club, said the state needs to quit subsidizing the dying industry and allow the pari-mutuels to stop the dog races that have become just an excuse to offer more lucrative poker games.

And, the bipartisan pair said, their “decoupling” bills (SB 382, HB 641) will put an end to the inhumane treatment of some greyhounds at smaller tracks. The pari-mutuel industry also supports the measures.

“It’s just not where we’re at as a people anymore,” Sachs said.

A similar proposal died on the last day of last year’s session over a dispute about tax breaks for the dog tracks, including PBKC.

The Humane Society of the United States, the ASPCA and GREY2K USA are also backing a measure (SB 488, HB 527) that would allow counties to charge an extra $10 for animal cruelty fines and let the money be spent on spay and neuter programs.

The animal rights groups are opposing a proposal (SB 1184, HB 1021) dubbed the “ag gag” bill that would make it a crime to take pictures or video of agricultural property.

Bondi, state regulators say no to slots at Gretna and raise doubts about Palm Beach

Thursday, January 12th, 2012 by Dara Kam

State regulators won’t give a Panhandle horsetrack permission to have slot machines without legislative approval or changes to the state constitution based on an opinion issued by Attorney General Pam Bondi on Thursday.

Her non-binding opinion also puts in doubt a local bill Palm Beach County and the Palm Beach County Kennel Club are seeking to get slots approved at the dog track. A referendum on the slots will go before county voters in November.

Bondi issued the opinion in response to a question from state gambling regulators regarding Creek Entertainment Gretna racetrack in Gadsden County. Voters there and in Washington County will decide on Jan. 31 whether they want to allow their local pari-mutuels to offer slots, something the Gretna owners are banking on.

But Bondi said the referenda would only be valid if they are first authorized by the Legislature or in the state Constitution, and Department of Business and Professional Regulation officials said they would comply with her opinion.

Lawyers for PBKC and the Gretna track rejected Bondi’s opinion, accusing her of being biased against the slot machines and promising that the courts will ultimately decide on the issue.

“This is not the first time, nor will it be the last, that an Attorney General has opined, for political issues, on a gambling issue outside of their authority,” attorney Marc Dunbar, one of the owners of the Gretna track, said in a statement. “Fortunately the Supreme Court has ruled on many occasions that these advisory opinions have no binding affect and more times than not are eventually rejected by Florida courts. I look forward to meeting her in court where law, not politics, will ultimately decide the issue.”

Gambling bill rewrite tweaked. Changes tax rates, keeps Internet cafes alive and stays out of barrel racing brouhaha

Friday, January 6th, 2012 by Dara Kam

Sen. Ellyn Bogdanoff‘s latest rewrite of a sweeping gambling measure includes a few major changes but keeps intact the voter approval required for three casinos anywhere in the state and still would allow for Florida’s existing pari-mutuels to offer Las Vegas-style slot machines, again if voters give the thumbs up.

But Bogdanoff, R-Fort Lauderdale, does make one big change in the 170-page amendment filed late Friday afternoon – instead of completely doing away with the “Internet cafes,” it would regulate them. The so-called “casinos on the corner,” operating now as sweepstakes games, would have to register with the state’s new gambling department (also included in her strike-all amendment), put up a bond and certify that the games comply with laws already on the books. A draft version of the measure released two weeks ago would have outlawed the Internet cafes that critics say prey on the poor. Palm Beach County commissioners voted yesterday to ban new Internet cafes from popping up in unincorporated areas.

The new version of the bill (SB 710) would still allow the state’s existing dog and horse tracks – including Palm Beach Kennel Club – and jai-alai frontons to offer slots if voters approve. But instead of having to spend $100 million to upgrade their facilities in exchange for the slots, the pari-mutuel operators would have to pay a one-time $125 million licensing fee.

The catch-all bill also does away with the tax parity the racinos in Miami-Dade and Broward counties had hoped for. Now, the South Florida pari-mutuels would have an 18 percent tax rate on slots – down from the current 35 percent – but not until the proposed casinos are up and running. The casinos would pay a tax rate of 10 percent.

Unlike Bogdanoff’s recent draft, her latest proposal does nothing about barrel racing, now an authorized racing format at a Panhandle track and under consideration at another. Gov. Rick Scott has asked lawmakers to specifically address barrel racing, saying he does not believe the legislature intended to permit it. Her new measure also would not buy back four pari-mutuel permits but it would bar any new pari-mutuel licenses from being issued after July.

The Senate Regulated Industries Committee is slated to vote on her bill Monday afternoon, the day before the 2012 legislative session officially begins.

Animal lovers revive push end to greyhound racing in Florida

Tuesday, December 6th, 2011 by Dara Kam

Two animal-loving groups are pushing a bill that would allow greyhound tracks to stop racing dogs but allow the tracks to keep operating the more lucrative card rooms.

Dog racing attendance has declined, as have revenues, and most people who go to the tracks ignore the greyhounds in favor of placing their bets on poker.

GREY2K USA, a group formed to end dog racing around the country, and the national American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, are both behind a measure sponsored by Delray Beach Democratic Sen. Maria Sachs, who sponsored a similar “decoupling” proposal earlier this year.

The ASPCA this morning released a poll showing that a majority of voters view the dog racing industry unfavorably. And GREY2K released a report documenting abuse and neglect of the dogs since 2004.

And the attendance and revenues have dropped dramatically at the tracks since 2004, according to data provided by state agencies included in the report.

Since 2004, the total amount gambled on racing at Florida’s 13 greyhound tracks, including the Palm Beach Kennel Club, decreased by 35 percent, paid attendance went down by 69 percent, and state tax revenues declined by 72 percent, the report found.

At many tracks, the dogs are forced to live in small cages and state regulators have written up at least nine cases of severe neglect associated with the kennels over the past seven years, the report found.

“Greyhound racing is cruel and inhumane and must end,” GREY2K USA president and general counsel Christine Dorchak told reporters at a press conference outside the House chambers this morning.

Forcing dog track operators to run the greyhounds so they can keep their card rooms open “is a mandate for cruelty,” ASPCA director of government relations Ann Church said.

PBKC owners won’t stop racing the dogs and support the measure, as they did earlier this year, in part because it will make their races more lucrative. Only three of the state’s existing 13 dog tracks, including PBKC, are expected to continue to keep running the dogs if the bill becomes law. Supporters of the bill say it was not intended to end dog racing but to allow struggling tracks to stay open with other betting options.

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Senate to workshop casinos bill next week

Wednesday, November 9th, 2011 by Dara Kam

The Senate Regulated Industries Committee will hold the first of two three-hour workshop on the destination resorts proposal on Wednesday, committee chairman Dennis Jones, R-Seminole, said.

Jones extended the committee’s usual two-hour meeting time to accomodate the dozens of lobbyists on both sides of the issue expected to speak out on the proposal (SB 710). Business and faith groups have lined up against the proposal while gambling operators from Las Vegas to Malaysia have lined up in support.

“There’s a lot of people that want to speak on this bill,” he said.

Jones said he’ll take 20 minutes of testimony each from those who wish to speak on the issue and allow out-of-towners to go first. He said he expects his committee to vote on the bill sometime before the second week of the 2012 legislative session that begins in early January. Expect to see plenty of amendments before the measure makes it to the floor, Jones predicted.

Sen. Ellyn Bogdanoff, R-Fort Lauderdale, is the sponsor of the proposal she says would allow up to three non-tribal casinos to open in Broward and Miami-Dade counties and create a statewide gambling commission. Jones said he thinks her bill is unconstitutional because it would create a monopoly in South Florida with impacts that would be felt in all 67 counties.

The state’s existing racinos – pari-mutuels in South Florida that also offer slot machine gambling – are objecting to the bill’s 10 percent tax rate for the “destination resorts.” The racinos currently pay 35 percent of their revenue in taxes.

Jones said he wants to explore “parity” in taxing and games during the workshops and isn’t convinced the proposed casinos would be getting a better deal under Bogdanoff’s bill.

Casinos would have to agree to invest at least $2 billion in the resorts and are likely to employ 5,000 workers and would be paying $75 million in local property and school taxes, Jones said. Meanwhile, the seven racinos in Broward and Miami-Dade only pay about $2 million in property taxes combined, he said.

“I think it’s a wash,” Jones said. “But that will be one of the things we’ll have to work out in the workshops to see how people feel.”

Baptists want Scott to say ‘no dice’ to gambling study

Monday, May 23rd, 2011 by John Kennedy

Florida Baptists are weighing in with budget advice for Rick Scott, urging the governor to veto a $400,000 provision for a comprehensive gambling study pivoted around a plan to bring resort casinos to Florida.

Bill Bunkley, lobbyist for the Florida Baptist Convention, has written Scott asking him to veto the Legislature’s assignment for the Office of Program Policy and Government Accountability (OPPAGA).  Baptists also want Scott to increase funding for the state’s compulsive gambling program, which absorbs about a two-thirds reduction — to $264,700 — in the budget.

But the resorts casinos idea draws the Baptists sharpest criticism. The Las Vegas Sands promoted the casino-convention center-resort idea as a potential Miami Beach draw. It also muscled-up its lobbying lineup during the recently completed legislative session and is positioned for a return fight next spring.

Supporters see the OPPAGA study as bolstering the effort. But the Baptist Convention sees no reason for taxpayers financing the research.

“The language directs a taxpayer study via the implementing language to determine the benefits of these gambling activities to the state of Florida,” Bunkley wrote Scott. “Nothing is mentioned in the implementing language to generate a balanced report that also explores the huge social costs which the state will without a doubt also be picking up the tab for.”

Bunkley said lawmakers over the coming year also should work to restore the almost two-thirds cut imposed on the state’s compulsive gambling treatment services, reduced in the budget before Scott from $750,000 last year.

After midnight: How the Legislature’s wheels came off

Saturday, May 7th, 2011 by John Kennedy

The tax provision that caused the Legislature to unravel and miss its scheduled Friday midnight close first emerged last weekend — and was ushered into a conforming bill by House and Senate budget-writers, said House Appropriations Chair Denise Grimsley.

“It’s been a very tough year, we had a lot of conforming bills,” Grimsley said shortly after the House adjourned and ended the 2011 session at 2:07 a.m., Saturday. “We just had some members who had some issues with it.”

Grimsley acknowledged she failed to fully gauge how a provision cutting the tax rate on coin-operated arcade machines would be seen as a major expansion of gambling by many in the conservative House.

The Senate, especially Senate Rules Chairman John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, wanted the measure to help dog tracks with card rooms.

But by then, the House had little love for the Senate — which Friday night had an uprising of its own over two other conforming bills that would have deregulated a dozen professions, but had never gotten a hearing in the Senate.

The Senate refused to go along with what the House wanted, killing the biggest of the two bills on a 32-6 vote. Senate President Mike Haridopolos, R-Merritt Island, and his leadership team were on the losing side.

Sifting through the still smoking wreckage of the last night, House Speaker Dean Cannon, R-Winter Park, declined to question whether the 45 conforming bills lawmakers were asked to vote on, may have caused the upheaval.

The bills, containing vast policy changes, some of which were being aired for the first time, had been agreed-upon only by a handful of leaders before being foisted on the full chambers for a final vote.

“A conference committee is an effort where people agree to things that they might not have otherwise have done in their chamber because it’s important to the other chamber,” Cannon said. “That’s what conference is all about. And that’s why conference is sort of an implied agreement between the two chambers.”

Was there a lesson learned? Maybe 45 conforming bills settled by a narrow group of lawmakers isn’t so hot?

Cannon disagreed. But his explanation may have reflected the early a.m. hour.

“Every session is different. And every Legislature is different. And because legislators are made of people, they’re subject to different personalities and different challenges,” Cannon said.

There goes ‘Swifty’: House OK’s no dog racing at dog tracks

Tuesday, April 26th, 2011 by John Kennedy

Greyhound racetrack operators, including Palm Beach Kennel Club, could drop dog racing but still run more lucrative card rooms under a measure approved 86-31 Tuesday by the state House.

Fans of horse-racing, jai-alai and dog-racing have been dwindling for decades in Florida and across the nation. The legislation (CS/HB 1145) would lift the current state requirement that dog tracks must run greyhound racing if they’re also going to run card rooms.

Bill sponsor, Rep. Dana Young, R-Tampa, said, “Nothing in this bill expands gambling.”

Critics, though, didn’t see it that way.

“Maybe this is a way to fix Florida,” said Rep. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala. “But this kind of expansion is doing nothing but feeding an addiction.”

Representatives of Palm Beach Kennel Club have said it would continue to run live races but they support lifting the racing requirement because they believe it would clean up the industry and boost track revenue drawn from simulcast racing.

Sen. Maria Sachs, D-Delray Beach, is sponsoring the Senate version of the bill (CS/SB 1594), which is still awaiting full approval from that chamber.

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