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Senate Raises Its Bet

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Tallahassee, FL – The Senate's search for new money may lead to more gambling opportunities for pari-mutuels. James Call reports a committee Wednesday upped the ante in discussions with the Seminole Tribe about gambling in the Sunshine State.

["Follow up."] "Sen. Dean recognized for follow-up."

Representative Joseph Abruzzo attended the meeting to answer questions about a House proposal. Sen. Charles Dean went straight to the point.

"Okay, let's go back again. Let's say we approved the Indian compact and they got this exclusivity in there, what's that going to do? Are you in or out?"

["Representative."] "Thank you Mr. Chairman. In my personal opinion it would obviously have to do with the language in put in the compact and right now we have a stand-alone bill."

A cornerstone of the agreement negotiated by Gov. Charlie Crist is exclusive rights given to the Seminoles for certain games. In exchange for exclusivity, the tribe shares its casino profits with the state. It has put about $400 million in a trust fund it will release to the state once a compact is ratified by the Legislature. The Senate has passed a bill each of the last 3 years and waited for the House to agree. Until now, it hasn't. This year, House members appear ready to act, and now some senators are having second thoughts about the Crist-negotiated compact.

"You know when you have a 50 percent tax rate you are pretty much dooming the pari-mutuels to fail, especially when their competitor has a zero percent tax rate. So, I think we need a level playing field. Let's treat them all fairly and equally and maximize our return to the state."

Sen. Dave Aronberg is a member of the Regulated Industries Committee and candidate for attorney general.

"You can maximize revenue to our state without making a huge expansion of gambling by allowing the pari-mutuels to have the same games as the Indian casinos."

Senators are trying to balance the interests of the state and the Seminoles. Economists say the state faces a budget shortfall. Unemployment is more than 11 percent, the highest in a generation. Meanwhile the Seminoles pay no taxes, and Florida's pari-mutuel industry employs about 26,000 people. Horse and dog tracks and jai lai frontons all want to offer some kind of gambling to be able to compete with the Seminole casinos. And Sen. Dennis Jones said there is a way to preserve Seminoles' exclusivity while enabling the pari-mutuels to offer games competitive with the Seminoles.

"Exclusivity has to have a value. And if we give the Seminoles banked card games, at five of their seven facilities, those are card games like baccarat and black jack that cannot be played at the other 26 pari-mutuels that has value that is exclusivity."

The Senate is working an idea to give the governor 60 days to negotiate a compact based on legislation approved by lawmakers. If a compact is not signed and ratified, then all dog and horse tracks would be allowed to offer slot machines, black jack and other casino games if approved in a countywide referendum.