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Slots lobbyists line up for huge payoffs
TALLAHASSEE · South Florida pari-mutuels stand to make hundreds of millions off slot machines and they've hired dozens of lobbyists to make sure they get the best deal possible from the state Legislature.
But while the battle over how to regulate and tax slots has turned into an economic boon for Florida's lobbying corps, the public will never know how much the lobbyists were paid or how much they spent to sway public policy and legislators.
That makes slots the perfect poster child in Senate President Tom Lee's campaign to reform Florida's lobbyist reporting laws.
"When there is an issue with the potential for that much money to be made, that's when you see them hire anyone who can help them influence the process," said Ben Wilcox, director of Common Cause of Florida, a nonprofit government watchdog. "But we'll never get a clear indication of how money was used to influence public policy."
Every time the slots bill is scheduled for a committee meeting, it's standing room only.
There are the dog and horse track owners who want low tax rates and moderate regulation. Horse and dog breeders want guarantees of better purses, while animal protection groups want high taxes and tough regulation. School officials want to know how much they will reap from the final deal. And the Seminole Indians, who publicly claim they have no position at all, want to know what kind of competition their casinos will have.
Their ranks include former members of the Senate and House, including a former House speaker, one-time political party powerhouses, allies of Gov. Jeb Bush and a former state education commissioner.
"This is the lobbyist relief act of the session," said Rep. Ron Greenstein, D-Coconut Creek, a member of the first House committee to pass a slots bill. "At the meeting, it was hard to tell who wasn't there compared to all the Class A lobbyists who were there."
Some get $100,000 or more to lobby an issue although talk among insiders is that fees on other issues have gone as high as $1 million. But when their job is done, the public will remain in the dark over how successful they actually were or whether they won bonuses to get amendments tacked onto the measure.
Lee wants lobbyists to disclose how much they are paid to sway opinions and how much they spend to wine and dine legislators in that quest. Similar laws already exist in 28 other states.
The Senate approved the lobbyist disclosure bill (SB 2646), which also calls for periodic auditing of reports, in a 39-0 vote on Thursday.
"Hundreds of thousands of dollars are being paid late in this process to put amendments on bills and you can't connect the dots," said Lee, R-Brandon. "Information is imperative for a free and open society."
According to state registration records, Hollywood Greyhound has 11 lobbyists this year compared with six during the 2004 session. Pompano Park Harness Track and Gulfstream Park in Hallandale are each represented by 12 lobbyists this year compared with seven in 2004.
"There is a lot of opposition out there and there are forces in the unregulated and untaxed gaming world that would like to see what the people voted on not come to fruition," said Dan Adkins, vice president of Hollywood Greyhound and a leading force in the slots amendment drive.
The formidable lobbying force hired by those interested in the slots bill has helped draw attention to Lee's quest.
"When you start trying to hire a lobbyist for every member of the Legislature ... it gets to the obscene," said Jack Cory, who lobbies for the Florida Greyhound Association, which represents dog breeders. "There is a very, very thin line between consultant services and influence peddling. Hiring one lobbyist for one legislator, you're getting very, very close to that line."
Much of that lobbying clout is concentrated on the state House, where the leadership agrees with Bush on trying to restrict Broward County's pari-mutuels to electronic bingo machines. Classified as Class II gaming, they provide less profit for the owners and players than Las Vegas-style slot machines, which are labeled as Class III. Broward pari-mutuels and those in Miami-Dade who hope to someday win voter approval for slots along with other interests are battling to get Class III.
During his seven years in the state House, Speaker Allan Bense said he has never seen an issue that involved more lobbyists.
"I understand there are dozens and dozens and dozens," said Bense, R-Panama City, who concedes lobbyist reform isn't as much of a burning issue in the state House. "Turning me off isn't the right word. But, boy, they sure are getting their troops out there. But it's America. If they want to do it, they can do it."
Senate leaders, who claim they won't go home without some lobbyist reform this session, still hope to win over the House.
"Some will paint this bill as insulting, that no legislator will compromise himself over a dinner or a bottle of wine," said Senate Rules Chairman Ken Pruitt, R-Port St. Lucie, who is slated to become Senate president after Lee leaves in 2006. "To the public, perception has become reality. And the image of politicians and lobbyists is not a healthy one."
Mark Hollis of the Tallahassee Bureau contributed to this report.
Linda Kleindienst can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 850-224-6214.
To read previous coverage, visit www.sun-sentinel.com/slots