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Updated: Decoupling, destination casinos and addictions at Senate workshop

  One only had to sit through a public hearing on gambling to get a taste of how diverse the state's interests are -- and the Florida Senate Gaming Committee did just that Wednesday.

 Committee chair Garrett Richter, R-Naples, had proposed four workshops spread across the state as part of what he has called a two-year comprehensive look at gambling legislation.

 There are 13 greyhound tracks, six horse-racing tracks and six jai-alai frontons in the state. The Seminole Tribe of Florida runs seven casinos and the Miccosukees one. During a three-hour workshop at Broward College's Coconut Creek campus, the legislators heard:

 Sixteen people, mostly greyhound lovers, speak in favor of decoupling -- the lifting of the state's requirement that dog tracks, horse tracks and jai-alai frontons offer pari-mutuels in order to maintain a slot license (Four others spoke out against decoupling saying it would hurt the dog racing and jai-alai business). Many of them members of Grey2K, they also want the state to require Florida kennels to file injury reports.

 Fourteen speakers, mostly connected to the horse racing industry and wearing yellow-green shirts saying "Horse Racing Keeps Florida Running." They reminded the senators that horse racing came before casino gambling. It's only a little stretch to say that they are anti-decoupling, because even if the law were somehow drawn for dogs and jai-alai, it's a precedent. (Also note that Gulfstream Park Racing and Casino is against decoupling and Calder Casino and Race Course is neutral.) The horse breeders and trainers say that while their interests sometimes match those of track owners, they often do not, and they stress that track owners need them in order to offer slots under Florida law. Slot revenues also enhance the horsemen's purses.

 Eleven counselors or recovering gambling addicts, who want more funding to help treat those who have have a gambling problem. "This country is exploding with gambling and nobody is doing anything about it," said Arnie Wexler, who suggested each senator attend a gambler's anonymous meeting to "see what's really going on." Robert Hunter, a Las Vegas addiction counselor, said: "You don't open a ski resort under the assumption no one is going to get hurt. You don't close the ski slope, you fund the ski patrol."

Ten in favor of destination casinos, including one gambler who called Florida's existing casinos "substandard." Ken McAvoy, senior vice president of Reed Exhibitions of Norwalk, Conn.,  noted that of the top 100 conventions, 30 are held in Las Vegas and Orlando is second with 17 and none of them would desert those perches for South Florida if destination casinos are approved. Instead, it would be new business, much of it international, and those folks stay longer and spend more, he noted."It wouldn't be cannibilization of Orlando." Others said it would boom construction and jobs, and one said it would "bring the return of Florida's favorite bird: the building crane."

 Eight in support of the pari-mutuel casino industry (including Calder publicist Matt Harper, who noted he graduated from the University of Central Florida but moved down here because the job market was better).

Seven pushing for slots at the Palm Beach Kennel Club (others from PBKC were in the audience in pink shirts) which passed a referendum but was not part of the 2004 statewide referendum that including Miami-Dade and Broward.

Five upset about a bill last year that crippled senior arcades, including senior arcade lawyer Michael Wolf, who "took umbrage" at being introduced in the Internet cafe category, went on a rant and drew an apology from Richter. But he was upstaged by 94-year-old Stella Kerrigan of Leisureville, who wants senior arcades back: "I get breakfast, I get lunch, I get dinner and they give you coffee all day. What more could you want?"

Two anti-casino speakers, neither of whom were leadership of No Casinos, Inc., and two people who want Florida to divert its money from gambling and spend it instead on enticements for the film industry. (That was easily the quietest moment of the night because nobody knew what the hell to say in response.)

 The Seminole Tribe of Florida, which collected about $2 billion in gambling revenues last year, was not mentioned by anyone, until the senators' closing remarks.

“They really don’t need to talk to us,” said Gwen Margolis, D-Miami. “They’re doing fine and I expect they’ll continue to do fine.” Word surfaced this week that the tribe paid the state an extra $4.3 million because a provision linked to higher revenues kicked in.

 But it brought the greater point: The real gambling interests aren't speaking on this tour: their work is to be done in Tallahassee. Spotted, but not speaking: The Panthers' Michael Yormark (they want a destination casino), Magic City VP Izzy Havenick, Vegas Sands lobbyist Nick Iarossi, Gale Fontaine, president at The Florida Arcade and Bingo Association, and I'm sure I missed others.

And note that this is just a Senate workshop and the Senate proposed the report that Spectrum Gaming executed; no one in the House, generally more anti-gambling, has moved a muscle although Rep. Katie Edwards, D-Plantation, sat in and noted that House Bill 155, the one that cruised through the legislature in three weeks after Lt. Gov. Jennifer Carroll got caught up in Allied  Veterans, needed another look. She criticized "government based on fear." (While Richter and others have noted that senior arcades likely shouldn't have been swept up with Internet cafes, the casinos still are against both, nothing that for one thing the machines' payout percentages are nowhere to be found and there is no tax like the 35 percent the parimutuels pay on slot revenues.)

And one other note: The workshop was titled "public testimony and local perspectives regarding two-part 'Florida Gaming Impact Study.'" That's the one that Spectrum Gaming produced. By my count, maybe one of the more than 75 speakers referenced that study. (Think they already knew what they were going to say?) So here's my Thursday-morning challenge to all: Read the report. Not just the part that helps your cause, but the whole report. I'll admit I haven't done so, so I have weekend homework to do.

 I'm almost doing it for Sen. Richter. It was my first time meeting him, and from a distance I had wondered whether this whole fact-finding was almost a stall to avoid doing anything. After watching him run a meeting, and seeing that he's apparently objective and certainly has no arrogance about him, I'm convinced he truly wants to work through the problem, as much of a grind as it's going to be.

  Signs pro and con greeted visitors to the Broward College campus and a live horse was stationed outside to raise awareness of the industry’s value. It brought no conflict with the nearby No Casinos signup tent, although it did motivate the elderly women holding signs supporting senior arcades to move upwind.




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