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Florida Senate To Move Forward On Gambling Bills

TALLAHASSEE (CBSMiami/NSF) -- Amid ongoing talks with the Seminole Tribe about a gambling deal, Senate President Wilton Simpson wants to move forward with other measures that would create a state gaming commission and lift a long-debated requirement on pari-mutuel facilities.

Simpson announced Wednesday that the Senate Regulated Industries Committee will meet Monday to consider a proposal (SB 7076) that would create a five-member "Gaming Control Commission" to oversee gambling operations in the state. The Senate committee also is expected to consider a measure (SB 7080) that would do away with a requirement that many pari-mutuel facilities conduct live horse racing or jai alai games to offer more-lucrative card rooms.

In a memo to senators, Simpson said the proposed gaming commission would be appointed by the governor and would have the authority to police the state's gambling laws, which now are largely overseen by the Department of Business and Professional Regulation and  local law enforcement officials.

"Responsible regulation is central to gaming, and I believe, as with other industries, such regulation should be reviewed and updated regularly," Simpson, R-Trilby, said in the memo. "Appropriate regulatory controls build public confidence and lead to a stronger gaming industry that can spur economic growth that benefits the businesses and our state."

Simpson's other proposal would affect pari-mutuels that have harness racing, quarter-horse racing and jai alai. Those facilities would no longer be required to offer the races or jai alai games while continuing to operate poker games, a move known as "decoupling."

Florida voters in 2018 approved a constitutional amendment that banned live greyhound racing at the state's dog tracks but allowed operators to continue to conduct card games and, in Miami-Dade and Broward counties, to offer slot machines.

Pari-mutuel operators for years have pushed for decoupling, but critics say the card games are a reward for continuing to support the state's once-glamorous racing and jai alai industries. The Senate decoupling plan would not affect live thoroughbred racing currently being conducted at two tracks.

"Thoroughbred breeders, owners, trainers, and permitholders believe keeping a live racing schedule is vital to their industry and its long history in our state. As such, they are not included in this legislation," Simpson said in the memo.

The Senate bills also don't address issues such as sports betting. Simpson noted that gambling is a thorny issue in the Sunshine State.

"Florida is a diverse state and our senators and constituents have many different opinions, beliefs and convictions regarding gaming. The fact remains, gaming is a voter-approved industry that has contributed billions of dollars to our economy for education, health care and infrastructure, while providing hundreds of thousands of jobs to Floridians over the course of nearly 100 years," the Senate president said in the memo.

Simpson has tried for more than two years to nail down a perennially elusive gambling agreement, known as a "compact," with the Seminole Tribe.

The state and the tribe have been locked in a fight over "designated player" card games offered at many pari-mutuel facilities. Those games led the Seminoles last year to stop making payments to the state that totaled at least $350 million annually under an earlier deal.

Toward the end of the 2019 legislative session, Gov. Ron DeSantis rejected a deal reached by Simpson and the  Seminoles, saying he needed more time to scrutinize the agreement.

After meeting with the state's pari-mutuel operators last month, DeSantis indicated he was unlikely to look favorably on a deal that would harm them.

"Ultimately, I don't represent the Seminoles. I represent Florida businesses and employees. We want to make sure those folks are able to do well under whatever arrangement may be reached between the state of Florida and the nation of the Seminole Indian tribe," he said on March 18.

(©2021 CBS Local Media. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The News Service of Florida's Dara Kam contributed to this report.)

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