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Florida Legislature poised to pass major gambling expansion

Bunkley notes other legislative concerns


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TALLAHASSEE (FBW)—As the Florida Legislature enters its final two weeks of the annual legislative session a major expansion of gambling is getting closer to reality, while Florida Baptist Convention legislative consultant Bill Bunkley is urging legislators to “Just Say No” to all gambling bills.

Both legislative chambers are in the process of considering two components of gambling—legislation to authorize a new compact with the Seminole Indian Tribe and bills that would provide certain incentives for the state’s pari-mutuel facilities to “level the playing field” with the Seminoles’ newly enhanced gambling options.

The gambling legislation is closely connected to the Legislature’s work on the state budget and pro-family leaders fear gambling may become a bargaining tool in the waning days of the session as the Senate and House are not in agreement on the appropriate remedy to meet a $3 billion deficit.

The Senate, which passed its version of the Seminole compact April 16, provides greater expansion to the gambling industry in its bills, but pro-family leaders are also concerned about the expansion offered in the House bills for the Seminoles and pari-mutuels.

The Senate passed the Seminole gambling compact 27-11 with virtually no debate. The bill (SB 788) offers full-fledged casinos to the Tribe, including games that are currently illegal, in exchange for a promised $400 million per year for public education funding.

The compact was opposed by Republicans Carey Baker (Eustis), Lee Constantine (Altamonte Springs), Victor Crist (Tampa), Andy Gardiner (Orlando), Steve Oelrich (Gainesville), Durell Peaden (Crestview), Ronda Storms (Brandon) and Stephen Wise (Jacksonville), and by Democrats Dave Aronberg (Greenacres), Dan Gelber (Miami Beach) and Gary Siplin (Orlando).

The Senate’s gambling package is sponsored by Sen. Dennis Jones (R-Seminole).

In addition to the compact legislation, SB 836 would reduce tax rates and permit certain table games at South Florida pari-mutuel facilities, while permitting video lottery terminals for pari-mutuels throughout the rest of the state.

It’s anticipated the Senate will consider the pari-mutuels bill April 22.

(This story went to press April 20. For coverage of later developments, please visit www.FloridaBaptistWitness.com.)

Having engaged in preliminary consideration of its gambling package April 17, the House of Representatives is expected to vote on the bills on or about April 21.

The House pari-mutuels bill, HB 7145, sponsored by Rep. Bill Galvano (R-Bradenton), chairman of the Select Committee on Seminole Indian Compact Review, passed April 13 with only four dissenting votes on the 20-member committee. The bill is tied to the panel’s Seminole compact bill (HB 7129), requiring ratification of the compact before the pari-mutuel provisions can be implemented.

Although less aggressive than the Senate version, other features of the House pari-mutuels bill drawing concern among pro-family advocates—who label the bill gambling “expansion,” contrary to Galvano’s view because it does not include new games—include:

•reduction in the tax rate from 50 to 36 percent;

•eliminating current restrictions which allow card rooms to operate only 12 hours per day and expanding hours to 24 hours per day;

•raising betting limits for poker from $5 to $50 and for “Texas hold ‘em” games from $100 to $1000;

•reduction in the annual license fee to $2 million from $3 million.

The Select Committee adopted legislation for a new Seminole gambling compact with the Seminole Indian Tribe April 3.

Meanwhile, Palm Beach Post reported April 15 Gov. Charlie Crist has re-opened negotiations with the Seminole Tribe for a new gambling compact.

The Post reports the prospective new compact—which the governor hopes the Legislature will consider before the end of the session—would require greater payments from the Tribe in exchange for the same package of games permitted under the original compact voided by the Florida Supreme Court last year.

Miami Herald reported April 18 the Seminoles may lend the state $800 million “in upfront cash” as part of the compact in order to allow lawmakers to avoid passing a $1 billion increase on tobacco taxes.

Florida Baptists’ Bunkley says the final weeks of the session are a “complicated chess match. Months of talk, speculation and positioning have set the stage for a showdown where Florida legislators will decide the next chapter in Florida’s dependence on gambling loses.”

In the midst of legislative horse-trading, Bunkley told Florida Baptist Witness he will continue to press “the case to our legislators that the only responsible option is to “Just Say No” to the false allure of utilizing any and all gambling proceeds to fund the state’s business.”

He urged Florida Baptists: “Please call your state representative and senator and tell them to “Just Say No” to any new gambling legislation.”

Concerning several other matters of concern to Florida Baptists, Bunkley said legislation to require ultrasounds for women seeking abortions in the first trimester (HB 983/SB 1854) is dead because there were not enough votes to even get a hearing in a Senate committee.

“We will not be deterred and anticipate it will be back next year,” Bunkley said of the ultrasound legislation.

In contrast, there is some hope that legislation (HB 1185/SB 2310) that would bolster pre-marital education may be considered.

The bill “has traveled well in both the House and Senate committees and now must get on each respective calendars to be debated in both chambers,” Bunkley said. “It is not without opposition so we will be working to insure that legislators understand the positive benefits informed couples can derive from getting properly prepared for holy matrimony.”