Saturday, May 19, 2018
Business

Revised gambling bill asks voters to decide fate of casinos, would allow for expansion in Tampa Bay

TALLAHASSEE — In an effort to win support and silence critics, the Senate sponsor of the bill to bring resort casinos to Florida wants to let voters approve any new gambling and allow counties outside of Miami-Dade and Broward to compete for three megacasino permits.

The changes to be unveiled today by state Sen. Ellyn Bogdanoff, R-Fort Lauderdale, will open the door to the possibility of a resort casino in Tampa Bay or Palm Beach County, provided voters approve and investors spend at least $2 billion. The revised proposal would also allow voters in counties outside Miami-Dade and Broward to give slot machines to their horse and dog tracks, and jai alai frontons.

But the measure also attempts to shut the door on loopholes that have allowed the proliferation of gambling at Internet cafes, the expansion of parimutuels at the Gretna barrel racing track and summer jai alai permits. The measure bans any new parimutuel permits, revokes all dormant permits, regulates all Internet cafes and prevents the opening of any new facilities.

Bogdanoff will ask the Senate Regulated Industries Committee to approve the amendment when the bill comes up for its first vote on Monday, the day before the legislative session begins.

"Whatever we've got, we're going to regulate,'' Bogdanoff told the Times/Herald on Thursday. "You can stay in business if you can meet the regulatory requirement and pay your taxes, but no more.''

Bogdanoff said she would have preferred to eliminate barrel racing but instead chose to allow the Gretna track, which opened when its promoters exploited a loophole in the law, to remain the exception and ban any attempts to open any more in Florida.

"They brought to our attention the ambiguity in the law. Good for them,'' Bogdanoff said. "But I'm not going to invite a lawsuit by taking away someone's property rights."

By giving voters the ability to decide whether their counties should be allowed to compete for the destination resort casino permits, Bogdanoff said she hopes to assuage many of the bill's critics. But, she said, the casino investors will decide which regions are worth the steep $2 billion cost of entry. Few companies have indicated an interest in opening a resort outside of Miami.

"The goal here is to shift from the predatory regional gaming to the type of gaming that will produce economic development through tourism, conventions and trade shows,'' she said.

Bogdanoff said she considered raising the tax rate from 10 percent to 18 percent, but casino developers said such a rate would be a nonstarter for them if they were expected to make a $2 billion investment. So Bogdanoff kept the tax rate of 10 percent for the resort casinos, but only those parimutuels that directly compete with them will get parity. For parimutuels to be given the same games and tax rate as the casinos, Bogdanoff's amendment requires them to make a minimum $100 million investment.

The parity proposed for parimutuels in the revised bill isn't enough for Dan Adkins, vice president and chief executive for HartmanTyner, owner of Mardi Gras Casino. He wants the bill to allow him the option to take his parimutuel permit for slot machines and move it from the track in Hallandale Beach to another existing location, such as the Westin Diplomat Resort & Spa in Hollywood.

Bogdanoff's amendment includes nearly three dozen changes to her 137-page bill. Among them is a provision that establishes a formula for casinos to pay a minimum of $250,000 into the compulsive gambling trust fund. Those casinos that generate the most business will pay more into the fund.

Sen. Dennis Jones, R-Seminole, the committee chairman, said Bogdanoff's changes to the bill are likely to address many of the concerns committee members had when her bill was first discussed in December.

The idea of allowing up to three destination resorts spread out across the entire state of Florida fits with the vision the Las Vegas Sands Corp. has for the market. It has been advocating for months that the Legislature go slowly and only allow one resort initially.

"We do think the market is facing saturation," said Andy Abboud, vice president of government relations for Sands.

Jessica Hoppe, vice president of governmental affairs for Genting Americas, another potential destination resort developer, said it welcomed Bogdanoff's changes but "the bill will continue to be a work in progress."

Even with the changes being floated, opposition remained strong Thursday from several business panelists at the Tower Forum in Fort Lauderdale. They warned that the bill threatens the existence of local businesses.

"This is not about us wanting to halt growth or tourism in Florida," said Carol Dover of the restaurant and lodging association. "The way the bill is written is going to cannibalize our members. Trust me, we are struggling. These times are tough."

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