Lobbyists, lawmakers hit jackpot as Mardi Gras Casino pays out big to shed greyhound racing

By Dan Christensen,

Dan Adkins

The owner of Hallandale Beach’s Mardi Gras Gaming has paid a squad of lobbyists hundreds of thousands of dollars to sew up passage of a bill that would let it shed its moribund dog-racing business, but keep its lucrative slot machines and poker games.

Hartman & Tyner also has greased the legislative process with nearly $30,000 in campaign contributions to more than two dozen state representatives and senators since January. Since 2004, election records show, the company has contributed $2.1 million to political candidates, parties and committees in Florida.

The principal beneficiary of the company’s recent political largess: the leadership PAC of Republican House Speaker Dean Cannon. Cannon voted for the bill. His Florida Freedom Council  PAC got $15,000 on March 7, records show.

House Bill 1145, which passed the House on Tuesday and the Senate on Friday, seeks to end a legal requirement that Florida’s 13 greyhound tracks must stage live dog races in order to keep their parimutuel licenses. Those licenses allow them to operate card rooms and, in Broward and Miami-Dade, slot machines.

The bill, which would take effect July 1, is not headed to Gov. Rick Scott’s desk yet.

The Senate version, larded with millions of dollars in tax breaks for the dog tracks, was sent back to the House for another vote this week. Should the governor get the bill, and sign it, it could be the coup de grace for a Broward racing tradition that dates to the 1930s.

“We’re going to try to slow it down,” said Florida Greyhound Association lobbyist Jack Cory. The association represents thousands of dog owners, breeders, kennel operators and vendors who stand to lose their livelihood if the bill becomes law.

The man behind the so-far successful Tallahassee strategy is Mardi Gras vice president Dan Adkins, a key figure in the 2005 ballot initiative that authorized Las Vegas-style slots at parimutuel locations in Broward and Miami-Dade.

Adkins, who did not return three phone messages to his office seeking comment, sees the racing bill as a big step forward in a broader effort toward being able to develop a large casino resort on track property.

“Under a proper plan, the existing locations that are already in voter-approved locations around the state could build hotels, convention space and theaters, spas and other resort-style amenities,” Adkins wrote on his blog on the Mardi Gras website.

Critics, however, call the bill corporate welfare that would bail out a dying industry at taxpayers’ expense.

The fate of greyhound racing is the bill’s marquee issue. But behind the scenes is a broader contest between Adkins and Las Vegas casino interests over the direction of future gambling development in Florida.

“That’s correct, and Danny wants the monopoly,” said lobbyist Cory.

Other critics say the bill seeks to make Florida less attractive to large, out-of-state casino owners like the expansion-minded Las Vegas resort mogul Steve Wynn.

Nevada gaming interests have sought their own influence in Tallahassee.  For example, in January Las Vegas-based Development Associates LLC retained Miami lawyer/lobbyist Alberto Cardenas, a former chairman of the Republican Party of Florida.

Adkins told WTVJ-CBS4 in January that his track will lose $2.5 million this year. The station reported Flagler Dog Track in Miami loses about $2 million a year.

Cory says that’s bunk.

“Saying parimutuels are losing money is like saying the NFL is losing money. They don’t show their books to the state, or the people of Broward County,” he said. “Greyhound tracks made $24.5 million last year, according to what they reported to the state.”

Nevertheless, Adkin’s bosses at Hartman &Tyner have plowed a lot of money into killing off greyhound racing in Florida.

Hartman & Tyner is a 56-year-old, privately-held development and property management company owned by Detroit-based real estate moguls Bernard Hartman and Herbert Tyner.

Lobbyist compensation reports that would show expenditures by Hartman & Tyner for the first quarter of 2011 are not yet on the Legislature’s website.

But last year the company paid nine lobbying firms between $320,000 and $620,000. The exact number is not known because reporting requirements are not precise.

The Rubin Group, the Fort Lauderdale-based lobbying shop led by William Rubin, collected the most: between $140,000 and $180,000.

Bill co-sponsors Rep. Dana Young, R-Tampa, and Maria R. Sachs, D-Delray Beach, got $500 apiece in campaign contributions in early March.

Hartman & Tyner was among 30 large, special-interest companies and political committees that contributed nearly $365,000 to the Florida Freedom Council in the week before the session began in March.

What role did the Speaker play, if any, in the bill’s success?

According to Cory, the Central Florida Republican has been “publicly neutral” on the greyhound bill even though he voted for it.

“He was very cautious because Orlando is anti the expansion of gambling. But the bill would not have moved out of the House without some sort of help from somebody,” said Cory.

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