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Business Observer Friday, Jan. 13, 2012 8 years ago

Legislature begins session

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A new gambling bill, a look at Florida's special taxing districts, and hospital quality are all on the docket this week.
by: Rod Thomson Staff Writer

Gambling bill expanded to lure pari-mutuel support
Struggling against significant opposition to proposed casino gambling for Southeast Florida, the bill's co-sponsor is proposing changes that could diminish some of that resistance.

The original bill by Sen. Ellyn Bogdanoff, R-Fort Lauderdale, called for three destination casinos, each being at least a $2 billion investment, and built the Miami-Fort-Lauderdale area. The push is two-fold: to boost the economy by generating thousands of jobs and to raise more tax money for local and state governments.

Malaysia-based Genting Group, which runs huge casinos in Singapore and Europe, is betting big on the legislation passing by spending about a half-billion dollars to buy prime downtown Miami property on Biscayne Bay. It is proposing a $3.8 billion casino complex. There is also talk of a Champion Development casino plan at The Forum in Fort Myers.

But opposition has come from powerful quarters in Florida, including Disney World, the Florida Chamber of Commerce, the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association, the Florida Attractions Association and existing dog and horse track owners. Plus, there remains a strong opposing impulse among Floridians to full-scale gambling.

All this was made clear to Bogdanoff at recent workshops in Tallahassee. So she is proposing major changes to her bill that include allowing existing pari-mutuels, such as horse and dog racetracks, plus jai-alai frontons to become full casinos. Further, she proposes opening up Tampa Bay as a possible location for one of destination casinos. It is essentially a further expansion of casino gambling, but it would require voters in a locale to approve it.

Bogdanoff also proposes cutting the tax rate on the existing pari-mutuels in half, from 35% to 18%, while putting the tax on the new casinos also at 18%. Nevada gambling operators say anything more than 10% is too high.

All of which means that the casino issue is expected to be one of the more hotly contested issues in the session.

Florida taxing districts under the microscope
Florida has more than 1,600 special taxing districts collecting more than $15.5 billion in taxes, and Gov. Rick Scott wants to know what is going on with them.

Scott is creating a review process to look at the districts to determine if they are still doing what they are supposed to be doing and if they are good stewards of their finances.

The districts, which date back more than a century, raise money for services such as fire and rescue, health care, environmental land protection, community development and urban renewal.

Some of the biggest are for buying environmental lands and for funding the state's 30 public hospitals. They levy property taxes and many are run by appointees, not elected officials. Last year, Scott trimmed back the big-spending water management districts, saving taxpayers $210 million.

Hospital quality comparison comes up empty
Do Florida's public hospitals provide better care than private hospitals? Gov. Scott's panel appointed last March has reported that it does not know. The hospitals are too diverse, with complicated business models. And the rural hospitals do not have enough patients for comparable data.

So, basically, it's too hard to tell. The panel did find, however, that public hospital patient expenses are about 12% higher than at private hospitals.

The panel does not call for eliminating public hospitals, but does suggest that voters should periodically have the opportunity to decide if such hospitals should keep getting tax money — which would mean voters could eliminate them individually.

Drilling for oil... on land?
Debate and rancor over oil drilling in Florida is normally focused on the Gulf of Mexico. But the Legislature may look at a new law allowing more seismic exploration and drilling on state-owned land.

This is not as scary radical as it first sounds. There is already seismic exploration going on at Blackwater River State Forest in the Panhandle. And there are 119 wells in the Panhandle counties of Santa Rosa and Escambia and 36 wells in the Southwest Florida counties of Lee, Collier and Hendry, according to the Florida DEP.

The House bill has some political oomph behind it, filed by Rep. Clay Ford, R-Pensacola, who is the chairman of the House Federal Affairs Subcommittee.

A billion for education, no reform for higher ed
While Gov. Scott has pushed for changes to the way the state approaches higher education -- and received plenty of media ridicule for it — there's little chance that much will happen this year.

When the governor was visiting the offices of the Observer Group in October — the Business Review's parent company — he questioned whether the state should be equally supporting all disciplines. As examples, he wondered if anthropology should get the same taxpayer support as engineering.

Well, all the anthropological world rose up in chorus to defend the importance of the discipline. The example and ensuing myopic media coverage drowned out the larger point, and changes Scott was suggesting. Those changes included reconsidering tenure — the concept of permanent, untouchable employment by professors; reforming university boards to give them more independence from university presidents; reigning in pay; and considering giving weighted importance to degree programs based on their economic value.

But with everything else on the table this year, few legislators think there is a real chance at any higher ed reforms.

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