02/29/2016 4:42PM

Florida House advances revised decoupling bill


A Florida House committee advanced a bill on Monday containing revisions to an earlier bill approving a proposed gambling compact with the Seminole tribe, leaving intact most provisions affecting the horse-racing industry.

The bill, which is a substitute for an earlier bill considered by the House, still contains controversial provisions allowing most of the state’s parimutuel facilities to close their live-racing operations while offering casino-type games. Under the bill – and a bill that was approved earlier in a Senate committee – Gulfstream Park and Tampa Bay Downs would not be allowed to decouple, and Florida horsemen and breeders would share in a purse fund receiving approximately $40 million annually in subsidies from casinos, including the Seminoles’ operations.

Rep. Matt Gaetz, the chairman of the House Finance and Tax Committee, described the bill in his closing remarks as a “love note” to the Senate, sent to encourage compromise between the two houses on their respective versions of the bill. The House version contains several elements that differ from the Senate version, specifically in areas dealing with the ability of the Seminole tribe’s present and future competitors to offer casino-type games.

“This is our plea … that all our work will not go for naught,” Gaetz said.

The Florida Senate Appropriations Committee is expected to take up its own version of the bill on Tuesday. According to several racing lobbyists, it is not yet clear if that committee will advance a bill. If the Senate committee kills the legislation, it is likely the Seminole tribe will continue to operate under the provisions of an earlier compact that has expired while negotiating with the state on a new agreement that could be contemplated by the legislature in 2017.

Although horsemen’s organizations have said they are opposed to decoupling, Thoroughbred lobbyists have been successful in carving out provisions in the legislation in both houses that will benefit the Thoroughbred racing industry, such as the purse pool. Those carve-outs are seen as critical to avoid stirring up opposition to the bill from the Thoroughbred community.

Florida Gov. Rick Scott negotiated the new compact with the Seminole tribe late last year. Because the compact has to be approved by the legislature, negotiations on an enabling bill have led lobbyists from gambling and entertainment companies to descend on Tallahassee to seek favorable treatment. The legislature has 11 days left in its session this year.

While the bill did not contain any significant new provisions affecting the Thoroughbred racing industry, the House legislation would allow Gulfstream Park to add blackjack to its own slot-machine parlor.