Florida senator pushes for video lottery terminals at jai-alai, racetracks
By Susan Stabley
A state senator is betting that electronic gambling machines can help Florida cover its budget shortfall and revive business at horse, dog and jai-alai establishments.
Sen. Steve Geller, Hallandale Beach Democrat and the president of the National Council of Legislators from Gaming States, is sponsoring Senate Bill 64, which would let video lottery terminals, or VTLs, be operated at locations that have a pari-mutuel permit for sports that allow wagering: live jai-alai, greyhound and horse-racing venues.
Sen. Geller said Florida could bring in $1.5 billion to $2 billion in tax revenue from the video terminals.
"The state is desperate for money," he said. "We are looking behind couch cushions for spare change."
The $250 million in new revenue expected this year is not enough to cover inflation and student growth, he said. A shortfall could be as severe as $5 billion, Sen. Geller said, once the state factors in costs for smaller class sizes, as mandated by a recent constitutional amendment, the state takeover of the court system and high-speed rail efforts.
Under the bill, 6% of net income from the video terminals would go to harness racing, jai-alai and greyhound purses. Part of the income would also go to education and local countries where the terminals are located. The bill calls for the Department of Children and Family Service to create a program for the treatment and prevention of compulsive gambling.
The bill was pre-filed Dec. 13. The legislative session convenes March 4. If the bill passes, electronic gaming could come as soon as October.
"If this was a bill that permitted at every 7-Eleven and Magic Mart and every Laundromat, I wouldn't be sponsoring it. I'd be voting against it," Sen. Geller said. "We are doing this only for licensed pari-mutuels, which are already screened for age, where people have already made a decision to go gambling and with very strict background checks and security."
The legislature authorized wagering on pari-mutuel events in 1931 and today 31 active permits govern 26 facilities across the state - 18 greyhound permits operating at 16 greyhound tracks, seven jai-alai permits operating at five frontons, five thoroughbred permits operating at four thoroughbred tracks and one harness permit operating at one harness track, according to the Division of Pari-Mutuel Wagering in the state Department of Business and Professional Regulation.
During fiscal 2000-01, more than $1.6 billion was wagered on pari-mutuel events in Florida. The total is $57 trillion since 1931. As a result, $3.6 billion has been collected as state revenue, according to the division.
Races and games conducted in Florida are often broadcast to and wagered on by venues across the US and in other countries. Typically, more than 6,000 pari-mutuel performances are conducted in Florida each year.
"Obviously, we'd like to see VLT's come to Florida. They are in about every other state we compete with," said Kent Stirling, executive director of the Florida Horseman's Benevolent and Protective Association, which is based at Calder Race Course. The Association represents more than 5,000 horseracing owners and trainers in Florida.
Stirling argues that it is the "lesser of three evils," assuming that the state's other options for balancing its budget are raising taxes or cutting social programs.
Calder Race Course, at 21001 NW 27th Ave. near Pro Player Stadium, has capacity for 15,000 people. Mr. Stirling said the VLTs would bring more people to the track and, he hopes, "convert them to become horseracing aficionados."
Jai-alai, a Basque variation on handball, is played at Miami Jai-Alai at 3500 NW 37th Ave., which has been in operation since 1926.
"It's Florida's first professional sport," said Stuart Neiman, assistant general manager of Miami Jai-Alai. "It's been operating since the beginning of the Miami International Airport, when it was two grass runways and a Pan-Am building."
Mr. Neiman said that like other pari-mutuel venues, revenue has been declining at Miami Jai-Alai.
"For years we did very well," he said. "This is the vacation capital of the country. We have awesome weather. Ultimately, we found that we compete for disposable income, not the regular gambling dollar bet in Las Vegas. It's really the same disposable income that's going to the movies. It's entertainment dollars."
Up through the mid-1980s, the Miami Jai-Alai had sold-out crowds of 15,000 before the start of the first game held on Christmas, its season opener.
"Everybody in South Florida wanted to be here opening night," he said.
But in 1988, the Florida Lottery began and pari-mutuels were hit hard, said Mr. Neiman. A pool of players, gamblers "who only play numbers and don't care about the venue, now get a daily fix," he said.
Miami Jai-Alai was also hit with a double whammy with a players' strike that same year, he said.
Despite the benefits, Miami Jai-Alai hasn't taken an official position on the VLTs other than vague comments by Mr. Neiman: "We are looking forward to exploring any avenue to continuing a beneficial partnership with the state of Florida."
"What has happened here is a tremendous need for money," said Fred Havenick, president and CEO of Flagler Dog Track Sports and Entertainment Center. "We think it's a win-win for the people of Florida. It would raise a billion dollars in taxes not being tapped into right now."
Mr. Havenick said passage of the bill could lead to thousands of new jobs in Miami-Dade while revitalizing business at his track. He estimated adding 500 workers if video terminals are allowed.
Before the lottery, Flagler Dog Track, at Douglas and LeJeune roads, saw audiences of 15,000 on a Saturday night, he said. Now, he said the track gets a tenth of the crowds.
"For me it is a no-brainer," Sen. Geller said. "Either lose an industry of 80,000 to 100,000 jobs or pick up an extra billion to $2 billion."