FLORIDA LEGISLATURE

Gambling industry puts $800,000 in GOP pot
The gambling industry bet that large checks
to the state GOP will improve its luck with legislators

By Mary Ellen Klas and Gary Fineout
Miami Herald Correspondents
2007 Miami Herald
Friday, October 12, 2007

Florida's ailing gambling industry, betting on the Republican-led Legislature to come to the rescue, has anted up $800,000 to the state party in the past three months, most of it at House-sponsored fundraisers.

The generous contributions come at a time when the industry -- dog tracks, horse tracks and jai-alai frontons -- is losing attendance and profits, while the parimutuels in Tampa and Broward County may soon face increased competition from Indian casinos.

The industry wants lawmakers to help by giving it more gambling options.

The checks, some as large as $100,000, came from owners of parimutuels from Miami to Jacksonville, Tampa and West Virginia and account for 17 percent of the $4.71 million the state GOP raised during over the quarter that ended Sept. 30.

The top parimutuel donor was the Palm Beach Kennel Club, which gave $165,000. Its owners want to seek voter approval to operate Class II slot machines -- video lottery terminals -- to offset declining business at the dog track.

Parimutuels gave the state Democratic Party $27,500 in the same period.

Nearly $600,000 of the GOP haul was delivered to the party within one week in late July, the same time House Republicans held ''Havana Nights'' fundraisers in Coral Gables and Miami Beach. The events featured a yacht cruise, salsa lessons, dinner at the former Versace mansion and personal concierges available 24/7.

Since then, House Speaker Marco Rubio has come out strongly against a proposed gambling compact being negotiated by Gov. Charlie Crist with the Seminole Tribe of Florida. The proposal would give the tribe Las Vegas-style slots as well as table games, and the state would get a cut.

Rubio's argument -- that the tribe is entitled to nothing more than slot machines -- echoes those made by the parimutuels, especially those in Broward, which say that granting table games to the Seminole gives them an unfair advantage.

''Why should we be put in a position of paying taxes to compete with them when we are given a lesser product?'' said Daniel Adkins, president of Mardi Gras Racetrack and Gaming Center in Hallandale Beach.

Currently, the tribe pays no state taxes and offers only Class II slots and poker.

Rep. David Rivera, a Miami Republican who helped organize the Havana Nights fundraisers, which took in $1.4 million for the state GOP, said Rubio's position on the Seminole compact is not linked to the gifts.

''Whether [parimutuels] supported the event had nothing to do with the House having antipathy toward the compact,'' he said. ``There's zero correlation.''

But industry officials acknowledge that the next legislative session may present a rare opportunity to get lawmakers to approve additional gaming for the tracks and frontons or lower the tax rate on existing games for three reasons:

The state is expected to face another $1 billion budget shortfall next year.

State economists estimate that giving the 23 parimutuels outside of Broward video lottery terminals could raise $1 billion a year in tax revenue.

The governor wants lawmakers to approve the compact with the Seminoles that would give the state at least $100 million a year, allowing the parimutuels to make the case they can contribute more revenue, too.

''Maybe we ought to deal with gambling all at once, package this whole thing together and get the state $1.5 billion instead of $100 million,'' Adkins said.

Before Crist or lawmakers approve the compact, he added, they should lower the tax rate for parimutuels and ``level the playing field to give us the same games.''

Compact negotiations between the governor and the tribe continue to drag on, despite a looming deadline from the federal government.

The U.S. Department of Interior sent a letter to the governor on Sept. 24, warning that it would allow the tribe to have Vegas-style slot machines unless the state reaches an agreement with the Seminoles by Monday.

When Crist was asked this week if he thought they would complete negotiations before the deadline, he said: ``I doubt it.''

George LeMieux, Crist's chief of staff and key compact negotiator, said Thursday he is scheduled to meet with Seminole negotiators on Tuesday, a day after the deadline, and can't promise there will a deal.

George Skibine, acting assistant secretary of the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs, said ''nothing will happen'' if Monday passes with no agreement: ``We still have some legroom.''