Magic City Casino, Pari-Mutuels Get Millions In Tax Cuts By Lobbying, Union Busting

Today, under the council oak tree, Charlie Crist will powwow with the Seminole Tribe. At their Hollywood casino, the powerful tribe will host the signing ceremony of the Seminole Compact, a gaming deal that is expected to generate billions for the state, and many more for the already flush Seminoles, owners of the Hard Rock Hotel chain.

How much did this compact cost them? At least $720,000 in campaign contributions in the last election. But, guess how much non-Indian racinos spent that same year? $3 million, according to the National Institute on Money in State Politics. And they got their money's worth.

These dog tracks and horse tracks are the focus of this week's cover story. One of the Easter eggs in the gaming deal is the windfall they stand to reap: expanded operating hours, no-limit poker, and a 30 percent tax cut on slots revenue that will yield nearly $140 million in the next year. One Miami racino, the Magic City on Douglas Road at Seventh Street, has been in business since 1953 -- a run unrivaled in South Florida -- by lobbying, union-busting, and generally being ruthless about their survival. They're not alone.

"This is the most cut-throat industry that I've ever seen," says Carlos

Lopez-Cantera, the house majority whip and a Republican from Miami, who

collected $15,500 in campaign contributions in 2008. "They'll kill just

to take a penny from the competition."

Although for a long time gambling in Florida meant old-timey pastimes like going to the tracks, the last decade has seen a break-neck race to see who can penetrate one of the last untapped gambling markets in the country, and the pari-mutuels are stopping at nothing to be successful.

Of Magic City, says Steve Wolf, the former racing director at Pompano Park, "This is what they know. They haven't done anything else for 60 years. They're going to fight tooth and nail and down to the last dime to keep this business going."

Legislators defend the tax cut on gambling as a way to generate much needed jobs and help the struggling pari-mutuels, which have hemorrhaged customers for decades. But the pari-mutuels aren't so much struggling, as assuming losses. Most are owned by multi-billion corporations, like the Isle of Capri (Pompano Park) and Churchill Downs (Calder). And the jobs these racinos are creating aren't that great either.

At Magic City, employees don't have health insurance, but consumer-driven health plans with high deductible levels and excessive out-of-pocket costs for people that don't make much beyond minimum wage. One waitress who has worked there for a decade is making just a dollar more now than when she first started.

Says Miami-Dade Commissioner Katy Sorenson, "It doesn't seem like the kind of job that unless people are desperate, it'd be the first place you'd look at. It doesn't offer very benefits. Casinos prey people's problems rather than solve them." Unite Here, the largest gaming employees union, is also suing Magic City and Mardi Gras for reneging on agreements going back as far as 2004 that would allow the union to speak to their employees.

What the Seminole Compact boils down to is the first major expansion of gaming in Florida since the creation of the lottery in 1986. "All these have been baby steps towards a critical mass of different types of gambling," says Bob Jarvis, a gambling law professor at Nova Southeastern. "Eventually the legislature will decide the horse is so out of the barn we might as well have full scale gambling in Florida. And if you have that, prepare to see the Steve Wynns, the Donald Trumps developing all along the beaches."

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Erik Maza