03/01/2016 12:25PM

Florida gambling bills look unlikely to progress


A key Florida Senate committee removed two massive gambling deals from its docket on Tuesday, intensifying doubts that the full state legislature will allow bills radically changing the Florida gambling landscape to go forward this session.

Senator Tom Lee, the chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, announced at the beginning of what was expected to be a marathon committee meeting on Tuesday that the two bills had been removed. He was non-committal about whether the committee would schedule the bills for another hearing.

“We will see if they show up back on the agenda on Thursday or not,” Lee said, in reference to the next scheduled Appropriations Committee meeting.

The gambling bills are ostensibly designed to give approval to a new $3 billion gambling compact negotiated between Gov. Rick Scott and the Seminole Indian tribe. Because the compact needs legislative approval, other gambling companies, parimutuel operators, and entertainment companies lobbied intensely to protect or enhance their own interests, leading to bills laden with special-interest provisions.

Lobbyists said late on Monday that there was a good chance that the Appropriations Committee would kill the bills on Tuesday. Earlier on Monday, a House committee sent a bill to the floor that differed significantly from both the compact that was negotiated by Gov. Scott and the Senate’s version of the legislation.

Both versions of the bills would allow most parimutuel facilities in the state to "decouple." That is, drop their live-racing operations while continuing to operate casinos or gaining the right to open casinos. Both Gulfstream Park and Tampa Bay Downs would not be allowed to decouple, and the bills also included the creation of a fund that would provide an estimated $40 million annually for Thoroughbred purses and breeders’ awards from casino subsidies.

If the legislature does not pass the bills this session, then the Seminole tribe is expected to operate its casinos under the terms of a previous compact, which has expired, until the legislature meets in 2017. The current session has 10 days left.

If passed, the bills would have likely led to the closing of all or nearly all of the state’s greyhound tracks. Hialeah Park, which runs a Quarter Horse meet, and Pompano Park, a harness track, were also expected to drop their live racing programs.