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Saturday, Sep 20, 2014
Politics

House committee advances expanded gambling bill


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Under a proposed constitutional amendment passed by a House committee Wednesday, Florida voters would get to decide if lawmakers should have the ability to expand gaming after 2014.

In recent years, Republican leaders have opposed any gaming expansion. This year, though, they have thawed to the idea in return for a proposed constitutional amendment that would allow voters to decide on future expansion.

The legislation, which passed the House Select Committee on Gaming on a 15-6 vote, creates a proposed constitutional amendment that would be placed on the ballot in November. If it passes the Legislature, 60 percent of voters would have to sign-off in order for the language to be added to the constitution.

If that occurs, no future state gaming expansion could occur without voter approval.

The proposal defines gaming by using federal guidelines for, among other things, slot machines, casino games like craps, and lotteries. The measure also specifically includes electronic gaming devices, “internet sweepstakes devices,” and video lottery terminals.

The “gambling footprint is so important it is one of very few that should be sent to the people of Florida,” said state Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Shalimar, who is shepherding the proposed amendment through the House.

Opponents of the plan say that the measure “ties the hands of future Legislatures” to change gaming policy as needed.

“We are for the most part abdicating our duty,” said state Sen. Jim Waldman, D-Coconut Creek.

State Rep. Erik Fresen, R-Miami, supported the measure, but feared that any gaming issue in the future could be subject to tactics often employed during traditional political races.

“It is going to then be a nuclear arms race to a 30 second ad and a mail piece for every single constitutional ballot,” he said. “And that’s the worst kind of special interest legislation.”

Gaetz said the proposed amendment would give the state “short term” leverage while negotiating its compact with the Seminole Tribe of Florida.

Gov. Rick Scott’s office is currently renegotiating the compact, which gives the tribe certain exclusive rights in return for $1 billion in revenue. A key provision of the compact is set to expire in 2015, which has prompted negotiations to begin.

Gaetz said the near-term leverage stems from the stability that the amendment could provide.

“With this potential to give some exclusivity for some period of time to the Seminole Tribe, we may be able to work a better deal,” he said.

He brushed off fears that the proposed amendment would reduce the “long term leverage” over the tribe that comes with lawmakers having the future ability to expand gaming, thus creating additional competition for the Seminoles.

That biggest leverage point is the potential to create large Las Vegas-style casinos, which Gaetz says will never happen.

“We know it’s a bluff, the interest groups know it’s a bluff,” he said. “So why not just be candid and acknowledge that’s an unlikely outcome, at least as we look at the political dynamic.”

The amendment vote came after the committee voted in favor of the omnibus reform bill that is carrying the House’s changes to the industry.

The bill, among other things, creates a Department of Gaming Control, which would regulate all aspects of the gaming industry. Unlike the Senate’s plan, the House bill does not include provisions allowing for the construction of Las Vegas-style casinos in Miami-Dade and Broward Counties.

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