TALLAHASSEE — With a standing-room-only crowd of lobbyists watching, a Senate committee voted Monday to bring destination resort casinos to Florida, but only after allowing competing parimutuels to operate as full casinos with no additional investment or voter approval.
The Senate Regulated Industries Committee bowed to the pressures of the state's existing gambling industry and attached an amendment to the controversial bill before passing it, 7-3. It was a dubious victory for sponsor Sen. Ellyn Bogdanoff, R-Fort Lauderdale.
The change, if it remains on the measure, could serve as the poison pill to doom the bill, especially in the gambling-averse House, where the bill's sponsor, Rep. Erik Fresen, R-Miami, said it will succeed only if the measure results in a net reduction of gaming in Florida.
The committee modified the bill by opening the door to allowing the same full-scale casino games at any parimutuel facility in Miami-Dade and Broward counties, and allow parimutuels to pay the same 10 percent tax rate that would be paid by the resort casinos. Parimutuels outside of Miami-Dade and Broward counties would also be allowed to get slot machines if county voters approve.
The change forced Bogdanoff to admit that the measure will indeed expand gambling in the state.
"I've given up saying it's not an expansion because I've lost that battle,'' she said. "Call it what you will."
The parimutuel amendment was added to Bogdanoff's 170-page bill by Sen. Charlie Dean, R-Inverness, and Sen. Maria Sachs, D-Boca Raton. Bogdanoff had hoped to require parimutuels to invest at least $125 million to win a casino permit, but the amendment took out that provision.
Bogdanoff said the change will subject the casinos at parimutuels to lighter regulation than those required of the destination resorts. The bill creates a state agency to regulate all gambling and creates a State Gaming Control Commission to authorize three resort casino permits and impose strict new regulations for casino operators.
Despite the change, Dean voted against the bill. "I support the industry and the license holders in this state,'' he said. "I think we're reaching way too far and are in too big a hurry."
Bogdanoff countered that the amended bill will at least "stop the proliferation" of the kind of predatory gambling that now exists in Florida because it will put a halt to any new parimutuel permits and regulate so-called Internet cafes and maquinitas — online slot rooms that have proliferated in strip malls through a loophole in state law.
"This is the first time we will take a strategic direction on gaming,'' she said.
Speaking against the bill was the Florida Sheriff's Association, John Sowinski of No Casinos — the Disney-backed effort opposing the bill — the Florida Attractions Association, the Southwest Florida-based Casino Watch and the Florida Baptist Convention.
"This is not our Florida,'' said Bill Bunkley, of the Florida Baptist Convention, urging senators to reject it because it is "a legacy bill for each one of you and this Legislature.''
The Florida Chamber of Commerce began running television ads opposing the bills Monday and launched a website called BadBetForFlorida.com.
But also on Monday, a group of business groups sent a joint letter to legislators urging them to support the bill because of its potential to create jobs.
Speaking on behalf of the bill were lobbyists for the Associated Builders and Contractors and the National Federation of Independent Business.
Bogdanoff dismissed criticism that more gambling in Florida will ruin Florida's family friendly image, but suggested that absent a better direction, the state will be consumed by predatory gaming.
"People do not go to South Beach to see Mickey Mouse,'' she said. "We have the strip club capital of the world in Tampa. We have not ruined our family-friendly image."
The bill will next go to the Senate Appropriations Committee, chaired by Sen. JD Alexander, R-Lake Wales, who opposes the bill.