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From the staff of the Tampa Bay Times

Senate committee hears casinos pitch as lobbyists line up



Two of Las Vegas’ largest casino operators made their case Tuesday for why Florida should consider “destination casino resorts” as the next best hope for jobs and economic development.

Andy Abboud of the Las Vegas Sands Corp., and Michael Britt of Wynn Casinos, presented a glossy slideshow of their properties to members of the Senate Regulated Industries Committee. While Tom McPherson of Boyd Gaming Corp., which owns Dania Jai Alai, urged the committee to keep an open mind and not pick and choose who can compete to build the resort casinos.

“We’re very anxious to get to market,’’ Abboud said. “If you were able to pass legislation this year, we could be up and running in maybe four-and-a-half years,’’ he said.

The Las Vegas Sands has been on a two-year crusade to bring their resort-style casinos and convention space to Florida and they are particularly interested in Miami.

Miami is “underserved by convention and trade show space,” he said, but added “we’re open to the entire state.’’

Under the proposal being pushed by Sands, the state would allow for exclusive operation of five casinos within a 75-mile radius. Voters in each of the regions would have to approve the casino and then a five-member commission would choose which casino operator gets the bid. The casinos would pay a $50 million application fee and be taxed at rate lower than the state’s parimutuels which now pay taxes on 35 percent of their earnings.

Abboud told the committee that “We clearly understand the politics of this state and, to be perfectly honest, we know we have to be financially more attractive than what is here today.’’

Meanwhile, the players are staffing up to influence lawmakers to pass the bill. Sen. Dennis Jones, R-Seminole, the chairman of the Senate Regulated Industries Committee, will sponsor the Senate bill. Rep. Steve Bovo, R-Hialeah, has been asked to sponsor the House bill.

The Sands has hired six lobbyists and paid an undisclosed amount to become a member of Associated Industries of Florida, whose president Barney Bishop is now lobbying on behalf of destination gambling resorts.

Wynn Casinos has hired Al Cardenas and two of his lobbying team, including former Scott aide Lanny Wiles.

Ginteng Berhad, the growing Malaysian casino giant, is in negotiations to hire a lobbyist who works with another Scott aide, Chris Kise.

Dan Adkins, president of Hartman & Tyner which owns Mardi Gras Racing and Casinos, argues that legislators should allow the existing parimutuels to offer casino games and doubts the measure will pass this session. “This is a heavy, heavy lift.”

Barry Hornbein, a lobbyist for the Seminole Tribe, shook his head in dismay at the proposal. “The ink is not even dry on the compact and they’re talking about this,’’ he said, referring to the agreement with the Seminole Tribe that allows them to have exclusive operation of casino games in return for at least $1 billion over the next five years. “There’s campaign races to come in a couple years and Vegas is a great place to get (campaign cash.)”

UPDATE: Senate President Mike Haridopolos, who has announced his intentions to run for U.S. Senate next year, told the Herald/Times: "I have never said I support the Jones bill.'' Haridopolos spokesman David Bishop, however, said the Senate president is open to the bill getting a hearing.

"President Haridopolos has not said he supports this bill,'' Bishop said. "It's a member-driven process. If the bill makes it through the Senate, its because a majority of members supported it. That doesn't mean the president is supportive of the legislation."

Some are also predicting that the measure will be settled in a special session later this year. If the federal government refuses to extend the Medicaid waiver later this year jeopardizing the budget savings expected from it lawmakers could return for a special session to make up the estimated $1.2 billion budget gap by approving expanded casino gambling.

[Last modified: Tuesday, January 25, 2011 10:13pm]


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