Lobbying money paid off big for Florida in 2009

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And they’re off …  

Florida’s 2010 legislative session is off and running, full of high hopes this finally will be the year Florida Legislature gets it right. Rumors are rampant of an impending deal with the Seminole Tribe that will usher in the future of Florida’s gambling industry. While we wait on these rumors to be proved true or false, a quick look at 2009 and what was spent to get us where we are, might indicate things to come.

If the 2009 lobbying compensation reports are any indication, there’s plenty of well-healed talent out there to help educate Florida’s lawmakers as to the needs of the industry. The publicly reported lobbying expenditures for last year indicate at least $5 million was spent by various gaming interests to advocate one position or another. This money was spent over more than 100 of the finest lobbyists in Florida. At the end of the day, we know the result of all of those lobbying dollars had some winners and losers, depending on how you fared by the passage of Florida’s only gambling bill, Senate Bill 788. 

Here’s a breakdown of who spent what and whether they were successful. Keep in mind this assumes SB 788 actually is put into law at some point in the future:

Probably the biggest winner of the 2009 legislative session was Hialeah Park, which spent $280,000 to lobby the Florida Legislature. When the dust settled, Hialeah secured in SB 788 the ability to return to horse racing, operate a cardroom and a slot machine casino. It was only a handful of years ago when Hialeah Park lost its parimutuel permit and began to rot away. As a result, racing has returned to Hialeah Park and the future for the historic property is brighter.

In terms of the coalition of interests, which did well in SB 788, the loose coalition of South Florida parimutuel casino properties, led by Florida’s biggest lobbying spender Mardi Gras Casino at $600,000, got a number of items on its wish list.  The group, which includes Calder Racetrack and Casino ($197,000), Magic City Casino ($202,000), Isle of Capri ($410,000), Boyd Gaming ($110,000) and Gulfstream Park Racing and Casino ($190,000), spent more than $1.7 million to secure an annual license fee reduction, an overall 30 percent reduction in the tax rate on slot-machine revenues and the ability to link into wide-area progressives that would allow them to offer mega jackpots via their slot machines. While they left disappointed full gaming parity with the Seminole Tribe was not achieved, the coalition saw some dividends as a result of their lobbying expenditures.

The statewide network of parimutuel poker rooms spent heavily in the hopes of securing some type of slot-machine gambling, but in the end, the Legislature awarded them with increased hours of poker operations and a removal of betting limits on poker. Here is a list of what the various poker rooms spent: Daytona Kennel Club, $215,000; Jacksonville Greyhound Tracks (Jax, Orange Park, Bayard), $205,000; Palm Beach Kennel Club, $120,000; Derby Lane, $120,000; Tampa Greyhound, $60,000; Hamilton Jai Alai and Poker, $50,000; Sarasota Kennel Club, $20,000; Pensacola Greyhound, $20,000; Tampa Bay Downs,  $20,000; Melbourne Greyhound, $10,000; and Ocala Jai Alai and Poker, $10,000.

These groups, for the most part, battled with the Christian conservatives in the Florida Legislature and the Seminole Tribe of Florida that spent $395,000 on lobbyists in pursuit of its gaming compact and the right to exclusive blackjack throughout Florida. Other groups of note whose advocacy should be of interest to poker players were: Las Vegas Sands ($60,000), fighting for destination casinos in Florida, and American Poker Ventures/Poker Voters of America ($50,000) fought for the passage of the online intrastate poker study.

Winners and losers in Tallahassee as a result of SB 788 are somewhat tough to evaluate. But think of it this way: You would rather be playing with a big stack in this game, and you can see from this list who the guys were that were betting big and chasing a big pot in 2009. This year looks to break the records set in 2009; at the end of the day let’s hope these big bets pay off for the Florida’s gaming industry.

— Marc W. Dunbar is a shareholder with Tallahassee law firm Pennington, Moore, Wilkinson, Bell & Dunbar, P.A.  He represents several gaming clients before the Florida Legislature and teaches gambling and parimutuel law at the Florida State University College of Law.