TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Rick Scott said Thursday he is open to allowing Las Vegas-style casino resorts in Florida, opening the door for promoters to move swiftly ahead with legislation this year that would end the decades-old ban on the high stakes games.
Promoters expect a hearing as early as next week in the Florida Senate on a proposal that could bring "destination casinos'' to Miami Beach, Tampa and as many as three other locations. The term refers to the high-end casinos being built around the globe that feature entertainment, retail malls and convention space in addition to blackjack tables, roulette wheels and slot machines.
Scott said Thursday he is open to the proposal, even though while running for governor he rejected the expansion of gambling.
"As you know, I've said in the campaign that I don't want our revenue dollars to be tied to gaming," Scott told the St. Petersburg Times /Miami Herald. "We've already approved gaming in the state, so we'll look at it going forward."
Scott's turnabout may be rooted in his campaign promise to pump hundreds of thousands of jobs into Florida's struggling economy and a meeting he had with a major casino executive last November.
Two weeks after the Nov. 2 election, Scott flew his private jet to Las Vegas for a private meeting with Sheldon Adelson, owner of the Las Vegas Sands casino empire. Scott was on his way to the Republican Governors Association meeting in San Diego, and he brought his wife, Ann, but no staff to the opulent Sands resort.
"It was an introductory meeting," said Ron Reese, a spokesman for Las Vegas Sands, which also owns casino resorts in Singapore and Macao, China. For the past two years, Adelson's company has been leading the charge for bringing destination casinos to Florida. He has said he is willing to invest as much as $3 billion in a project in Miami.
Some key state lawmakers are embracing the idea, while owners of existing casinos and racetracks have raised concerns.
State Sen. Dennis Jones, R-Seminole, chairman of the Senate Regulated Industries Committee, which oversees gambling, has begun drafting a bill that would allow for the establishment of four or five casino resorts in Florida and the creation of a gambling commission to regulate them.
"This is going to be a transformation in state policy," said Sen. Ellyn Bogdanoff, a Fort Lauderdale Republican. "I'm not a supporter of the expansion of gambling, but that train left the station, and what we need to do is harness it, create an infrastructure to control it properly and create a better model."
The proposal relies on the assumption that a Leon Circuit Court ruling last November cleared the way for the Legislature to authorize slot machines without a constitutional amendment. The court said the Legislature had the authority to give the Hialeah Park racetrack slot machines without voter approval.
Bogdanoff said, however, that the Legislature is likely to require that voters give local approval before the casinos could be built.
One plan would also require that the proposed casino resorts be at least 75 miles apart, and, in return for the exclusive operation in a region, the casino operator would pay a one-time application fee of at least $50 million — up-front cash that would help fill the state's $3.5 billion budget hole. Another plan would allow competing casinos to operate along a Las Vegas-style strip.
"The concept is not just to create a source of revenue for the state that could equal or surpass the lottery," said Al Cardenas, a Miami lobbyist for Wynn casinos. "More important is the billions that would be invested in our state and the creation of tens of thousands of permanent, high-paying jobs."
Tax rates on the casino games would drop from the 35 percent currently imposed on the South Florida parimutuels that operate slot machines to 8 to 10 percent, Jones said.
He predicted the initiative would create "a minimum of 5,000 jobs and has the potential of $500 million a year in tax revenue." The casinos could also draw tourists from Latin America and other places around the globe, he said.
The gambling companies being mentioned that could come up with the cash include the Sands, Harrah's, Penn National Gaming, Genting Group and the company that owns the Wynn casinos.
But before Scott and the Legislature can make Florida a casino state, they face major hurdles from the Seminole Tribe, tourism magnets Walt Disney World and Universal Studios, the state's struggling parimutuels industry and gambling opponents in the conservative Legislature.
Under the compact between the state and the Seminoles, the tribe is allowed to halt the $150 million it sends annually to the state if it faces new competition. The tribe is paying the state an increasing amount over five years, after which time it can renegotiate.
Jones said it will take years to build and operate the casinos, "so you wouldn't have an effect on the compact anyway."
Gary Rutledge, a close friend of Scott's who lobbies for Derby Lane in St. Petersburg and other greyhound tracks, said the state's horse and dog tracks would oppose the proposal unless the measure included new revenue sources for the parimutuel industry.
"The primary issue for many of the parimutuels is, if the state chooses to embark on a restricted number of destination casinos, it provides additional gambling opportunities for the existing facilities," he said.
Rep. Dennis Baxley, a conservative Republican from Ocala, called the proposal a desperate attempt to fix the state's budget woes.
"Out of desperation, they're clinging to a failed model of 'you can get something for nothing,' " he said. "But we know these operations rely on gambling addicts. Is that the kind of Florida that we want? I think the answer is no."
Times/Herald staff writers Marc Caputo and Steve Bousquet contributed to this report. Mary Ellen Klas can be reached at meklas@MiamiHerald.com.