Sunday, May 20, 2018
Business

Plan for mega-casinos dies in Florida House

TALLAHASSEE — A statewide television ad campaign, glitzy architectural renderings — even the promise of thousands of jobs — couldn't change the political odds this year against the resort casino bill in Tallahassee.

House sponsor Erik Fresen, R-Miami, abruptly pulled the bill from consideration on Friday, when it was clear that the House committee hearing it for the first time wasn't going to deliver the votes for passage. Proponents will have to wait until 2013 to try again.

"To be disappointed would (mean) that I had expectations of incredible victory on this bill,'' he said after conceding "it's dead for the year."

The not-unexpected defeat of the plan to build three $2 billion mega casinos in Miami-Dade and Broward "was not about policy,'' said Sen. Ellyn Bogdanoff, a Fort Lauderdale Republican and Senate sponsor of the bill. "It was about politics."

Politics came in the form of intense pressure from powerful industry groups like the Florida Chamber of Commerce and the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association, who opposed the arrival of out-of-state casino companies and the damage they claimed it would cause Florida's tourism industry.

It came from local business owners, the Seminole Tribe and South Florida's racetrack-casino operators who feared they couldn't compete with the hotels, restaurants, casinos and convention centers subsidized with the mega resort's casino cash.

And it came from community leaders, like Miami businessman Norman Braman, who opened his checkbook for the No Casinos effort, and Grace Solares, a neighborhood activist in Miami who appeared before the House subcommittee Friday and condemned the proposal as an "insidious disease."

"Do not wash your hands like Pontius Pilate did,'' Solares told the House Business and Consumer Affairs and subcommittee. "Do your duty. Stop it now."

But the biggest blow, Bogdanoff said, was the lost opportunity to use the bill as a way to tighten Florida's porous gambling regulations and reduce what she considers the proliferation of predatory gambling.

The House bill would have created a State Gaming Control Board, shut down slot-machine look-alikes at Internet Cafes, revoke dormant pari-mutuel permits and buy back the permits of low-performing horse and dog tracks.

"It's sad that the House would shut it down in the first committee and not let the debate continue,'' she said.

Dan Adkins, head of Mardi Gras Casino and Racetrack in Hollywood, Fla., said the pari-mutuels would have supported the bill if racetrack-casinos were given the same Las Vegas games as the resort casinos. The defeat, he said, now "levels the playing field and gives us an opportunity to regroup and try to bring this issue back in the right manner next year.''

Jessica Hoppe, general counsel for Genting's Resorts World Miami, which has already invested nearly $1 billion in real estate for a prospective casino, said the company would "regroup" and keep fighting.

"We obviously know this is an issue for Florida that does not end today,'' she said.

Genting has explored bypassing the Legislature and conducting a statewide petition drive to bring a referendum on the ballot in 2014 that would allow Miami-Dade and Broward counties to approve resort casinos. According to the Florida Division of Elections, they have not yet officially formed the required political committee to collect signatures to start the long process.

"Bring it on,'' said Dan Gelber, consultant for No Casinos and a former state senator from Miami Beach. "Let them come in with huge amounts of money. People will have the good sense to know this is a sucker's bet."

With the demise of the resort casino bill, legislators are turning their attention to the expansion of gambling in smaller measures across the state and raising questions about what impact they will have on the state's revenue-sharing agreement with the Seminole Tribe.

Under the tribal compact, the tribe has the exclusive right to operate slot machines outside of Miami-Dade and Broward or it can without payments to the state. This year, the tribe is set to pay $233 million.

In the last six months, a barrel racing track has opened in Gadsden County and voters have approved installing slot machines. More than 1,000 Internet cafes are in operation throughout the state, operating slot-machine like games under a loophole in state law. State regulators have issued a summer jai alai permit under another loophole in the law that could open the door to another slot machine permit in Miami-Dade. And a bill to revoke the requirement that dog tracks with poker rooms no longer have to race dogs was broadened to include a provision that allows counties to ask voters for permission to operate slot machines at local horse and dog tracks.

Pinellas County became the latest county to consider a referendum, following a request by Derby Lane dog track. It will discuss a resolution on the issue at its County Commission meeting on Tuesday. Voters in Gadsden and Washington counties have already approved referendums allowing slot machines to be operated at their horse and dog tracks, and Palm Beach, Brevard and Lee counties have announced referendums are underway as well.

"I have been saying for months, if nothing happens within the next five years, we will become the No. 1 gambling state in the nation,'' Bogdanoff said. "And it's not the kind of gambling we want."

Times staff writer David DeCamp contributed to this report.

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