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Odds Dim For Passage of State Gambling Bill

The prospect of a major overhaul of Florida's tangled web of gambling laws or the approval of Las Vegas-style casinos this legislative session faces growing odds despite promises from GOP legislative leaders as late as last fall that the gambling issue was a priority.

House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, and Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, appeared ready Wednesday to punt on the gambling issue to their successors and ignored gambling in their list of legislative priorities presented to editors and reporters at The Associated Press's annual pre-session gathering in the Capitol.

While acknowledging that Florida gambling law has "more loopholes than I could count," Weatherford specifically scuttled the possibility that his chamber will act without an accompanying constitutional amendment proposal letting voters weigh in on any possible expansion, an idea first reported by The News Service of Florida last year.

"Unless we can do that, I don’t think you'll see us take up gaming in the House," Weatherford told reporters.

When pressed for a definition of "expansion," Weatherford said: "Anything new."

Election-year politics in which incumbent Republican Gov. Rick Scott is fighting for a second term may play a role in putting a gambling proposal before voters, especially after the Florida Supreme Court this week cleared the way for a medical marijuana question to go on the November ballot. The gambling question could draw out more conservative Republican voters and offset younger, Democratic-leaning voters keen on the marijuana proposal.

The GOP leaders' reluctance to act comes after spending $400,000 on a gambling study and holding four Senate hearings across the state as part of a soup-to-nuts review of the gambling laws and rules that have entangled state officials in nearly two dozen lawsuits.

In December, Senate Gaming Committee Chairman Garrett Richter, R-Naples, set odds for passage of a major gambling package at "50-50," acknowledging the variety of competing issues involved.

"There's regulations. There's dogs. There's integrated resorts. There's taxes. There's slots. There's the compact. There's decoupling. There's injury reporting (for greyhounds). If you take all those pieces of the puzzle, they don't snap together that easily," Richter said at the time.

Lawmakers have at least another year to consider changes to a deal, known as a compact, with the Seminole Tribe of Florida that expires in 2015.

Gaetz said Wednesday the Legislature was "forced" into taking up the gambling issue by the looming expiration of the deal with the Seminole Tribe. The compact allows the tribe to have exclusive rights to banked card games such as baccarat and black jack at its casinos in exchange for payments to the state totaling $1 billion over five years.

"Gaming is an issue that is forced to the stage either this year or next year by the fact that the Seminole compact is up for some renegotiation and when you do that you sort of touch the dominos that make everything else affected," he said. "I don't think that expansion of gaming or gaming legislation would be a Will Weatherford or a Don Gaetz priority. … It's not something we necessarily want to become involved in, but it's something that circumstances probably require either us or our successors to do something about."

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