TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) _ Florida could get three new large casinos, as well as slot machines at every dog and horse track in the state, under a far-reaching gambling bill that passed its first hurdle Monday.
A state Senate panel voted 7-3 in favor of the hotly debated and heavily lobbied bill, but its future remains uncertain amid the avowedly staunch opposition to the expansion of gambling by top House Republicans.
When the bill was initially filed late last year, it was primarily focused on bringing casinos to South Florida that could lure out-of-state tourists and spark jobs since each casino operator seeking a license is required to spend at least $2 billion. Sen. Ellyn Bogdanoff, R-Fort Lauderdale and sponsor of the measure, promised that her bill would go hand in hand with an effort to rein in other types of gambling going in the state.
But Bogdanoff was forced to make concessions to the state's pari-mutuel industry, which retains political clout in Tallahassee, in order to move the legislation along.
So the bill approved on Monday now gives dog tracks and horse tracks located in the same counties with the large casinos, or destination resorts, a chance to offer the same games such as blackjack without having to make the same $2 billion investment. These tracks would also pay the same lower tax rate as the casinos.
The legislation also would allow dog tracks and horse tracks in other parts of the state to offer slot machines. It also makes it clear that the large casinos would no longer be limited to just South Florida but would be allowed anywhere in the state.
Voters in each county would have to vote to allow the different types of expanded gambling, but the bill does not require an up or down statewide vote on casinos.
For some lawmakers it was just too much. The casino bill is already staunchly opposed by a diverse coalition of groups including Disney World, the Florida Chamber of Commerce and groups such as the Florida Baptist Convention.
“This bill now to me represents the largest expansion of gambling that I have ever seen in the country,'' said Sen. John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine and one of the three no votes against the bill.
Added Sen. Charlie Dean, R-Inverness: “I think we're reaching way too far; we've gone too fast and in too big a hurry.''
Bogdanoff conceded she has “lost'' the argument that the legislation does not expand gambling in Florida, which besides existing dog and horse tracks also includes a state-run lottery and casinos run by the Seminole Tribe of Florida.
But she predicted that the legislation would cut down on the “proliferation'' of gambling that has occurred in recent years because it would also block any new pari-mutuel permits – similar to one that was recently handed out for a barrel-racing operation in Gretna. She also said it would prevent the addition of anymore Internet cafes, which are sweepstakes operations run out of storefronts and whose legal status has been questioned.
“This is a big lift and there's a lot of stuff in here. Call it what you want. Call it an expansion. Call it a reform. Call it a redirection,'' Bogdanoff said.
The first stop of the bill before the Senate Regulated Industries Committee attracted a large number of detractors as well as supporters who said the legislation was needed in order to bring much-needed jobs to a state that still has double-digit unemployment.
Sen. Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, R-Miami, brushed aside criticism that the bill would take away from Florida's family-friendly atmosphere and said lawmakers should vote for it.
“It isn't every day in this economy you have companies stepping forward willing to spend billions,'' said Diaz de la Portilla.
The bill must clear two more committees in the Senate before it would head to the full Senate. But Thrasher, who is the powerful chairman of the final committee stop, predicted the measure may not move much further until the Florida House signals if it is willing to pass a similar bill.
Rep. Eric Fresen, R-Miami and the House sponsor, predicted on Monday that a House panel would take up the legislation next week. But even Fresen stopped short of saying whether or not he had the votes to get the legislation passed in that chamber.
While Republicans have been divided about the bill Gov. Rick Scott has refused to take a firm stance on whether he would sign the bill should it eventually land on his desk.