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April 20, 2014

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Florida legislators consider options to expand gambling

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Imagine Florida with slot machines at several dog tracks, intended to lure Georgians to Jacksonville, Alabamans to Pensacola, high rollers to Palm Beach and race fans to Daytona Beach.

That is one of the ideas gaining steam in Florida's capital as gaming promoters plan ways to expand the state's gambling empire in exchange for closing loopholes that have exploded over the past few years.

The Florida Senate Gaming Committee has scheduled a series of hearings next month in Jacksonville, Pensacola, Lakeland and Coconut Creek to hear from the public, as lawmakers embark on an ambitious rewrite of the state’s gambling laws.

“The goal is to reform Florida’s gambling laws in a way that will benefit Florida’s economy and social welfare for years to come,” said Sen. Garrett Richter, R-Naples, chairman of the committee.

Legislative leaders have signed a $400,000 contract with Spectrum Gaming Group of New Jersey to assess the economic impact of existing and expanded gambling on communities in Florida. The report, due Oct. 1, will also offer some regulatory options before lawmakers draft the plan. Among the 10 options reviewed by Spectrum, only one would not expand gambling. The others range from allowing two so-called “destination resorts” in South Florida to limited expansion of gambling in certain regions of the state.

The timing of the legislative debate is significant. In 2015, the provisions of the state’s agreement with the Seminole Tribe of Florida expire, requiring the state to renew the compact or establish new rules to allow the tribe to operate blackjack and other table games exclusively, in exchange for providing revenue to the state.

The reopening of the tribal compact, as well as the perception that acceptance of casino games has increased among most Floridians, has made many legislative observers predict that Florida may pass wholesale gambling reforms in the upcoming session.

“It’s much different this year than it’s ever been before,” said Al Lawson, a former Democratic legislator from Tallahassee who supports expanding slot machines to North Florida. “Legislators are more open to give consideration to this than before.”

Lawson predicted that the Senate hearings “will be packed” with supporters.

“Things have changed,” he said. “We now load up two buses a week bringing people to casinos in Alabama and Mississippi. Why won’t we take advantage of that?”

The first phase of Spectrum’s report, which was completed in July, cited a 2013 poll by the American Gaming Association that found that 85 percent of all Americans now view casino gambling as an acceptable activity for themselves and others.

Senate President Don Gaetz and House Speaker Will Weatherford have indicated that they do not support expanded gambling, but many of their supporters believe that they may be open to a gradual expansion in exchange for closing the loopholes that have allowed “flag drop” racing as a parimutuel sport and drawn nearly two dozens lawsuits.

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