Miami-Dade County Commission takes aim at mega-resorts casino plans

TALLAHASSEE — An array of opponents, from South Florida to the state capital, has lined up swiftly in response to proposed legislation to bring gigantic "destination resort" casinos to South Florida despite promises of economic development and an infusion of jobs.

The Miami-Dade County Commission was ready to slice the bill to shreds earlier this week as it spent three hours reviewing it and getting public reaction. Meanwhile, others criticized the bill as too light on regulation and incomplete when it comes to policing casinos.

The county commission decided to send a letter to the sponsors of the legislation, Rep. Erik Fresen and Sen. Ellyn Bogdanoff, demanding they give local government more control over the mega resorts, allow the county to get a share of the revenue and carve out protections for the region's parimutuel industry. Absent that, the bill could face their collective opposition, commissioners warned.

"What this means is that you have no say,'' Commission Chairman Joe Martinez told his colleagues after the county attorney read summaries of the bill. "What this means is that the money does not stay here."

Dave Ramba, a lobbyist for the Broward County-based Seminole Tribe, questioned why the bill took two months to produce since legislators left the job of writing the regulatory rules to a new seven-member State Gaming Commission and a new Department of Gaming Enforcement.

"They spent a lot of time on the creation of more government and very little time on what the commission's job is going to be,'' he said.

But Bogdanoff, a Fort Lauderdale Republican, and Fresen, a Miami Republican, said Friday that their intent was not to release a perfect bill but to get the conversation started and have the debate over modifications aired in the open.

"I anticipated I would have to wear a bulls-eye on my back — as well as Rep. Fresen — because there will be 100,000 people shooting at this bill,'' Bogdanoff told the Times/Herald.

The lawmakers said they are prepared to make some changes, but they also fiercely defend their goal of harnessing all gambling under a single state agency and authorizing destination resort casinos to lure more international tourists. But, Bogdanoff said, the parimutuel industry is a difficult issue.

"It is a greedy industry and they want to make sure they get the maximum revenue with the minimal investment," she said.

The twin proposals filed on Wednesday would allow for three casino resort licenses to be issued in Miami-Dade and Broward immediately and open the door for other counties to hold a referendum to build them in the future.

"We are not bringing anything to the state of Florida that doesn't already exist,'' Bogdanoff said. "The question is, how do we want to look? We have to create a new strategic direction."

But Miami-Dade's commissioners wanted more assurances. Commissioner Esteban Bovo, who served with Fresen in the House as recently as last spring, said his former colleague had "missed the boat on this one."

The legislation, which calls for taxing the mega-resorts at 10 percent, but leaving the racetrack casinos at the current 35 percent, fails to take into account the facility improvements and local investments made by the "mom and pop" parimutuels in Miami-Dade and Broward counties, when voters gave them the right to install slot machines three years ago, he said.

John Brunetti, owner of Hialeah racetrack, which formerly employed Bovo, said his company has invested $150 million in its first phase of construction. Isadore Havenick, president of Flagler Dog Track and Magic City Casino, said his company has spent $60 million and plans to spend another $180 million more.

"We think it would be hypocritical to stand here and say we don't want other forms of gambling in Miami-Dade County,'' Havenick said. But he said he wants to see "parity in product, parity in tax rate, parity in regulation, parity in everything else. It's only fair."

Commissioners Rebecca Sosa and Dennis Moss chided legislators for failing to give the county a revenue-sharing provision to help offset the cost of roads, police and emergency personnel that will serve the three proposed $2 billion resorts.

Moss said he could not support the bill without giving equal treatment to parimutuels and without a plan to train local residents to compete for the jobs. Commissioner Lynda Bell said the lawmakers needed to know "we're all on the same page."

Miami Beach Mayor Matti Herrera Bower told the county commission she can't support it without more assurances that her community won't be hurt. Miami Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez said he was encouraged by a provision in the bill that requires local cities and counties to give conceptual approval to a destination resort applicant before they will be issued a casino license.

"That means we have a lot of leverage,'' he said. But while the jobs produced by three mega-resorts and casinos could help the community, Gimenez said, "one of the things we need to assure is these jobs go to the people here.''

Bogdanoff and Fresen said they are aware of the commission's concerns but insist the regulatory controls and revenue must remain with the state.

"They would rather bilk revenue from the casinos than find a way to meet their own revenue needs,'' Bogdanoff said. "If you look at a $2 billion facility, you need to ask how much the county is going to be getting -- in property tax, in bed tax, in its proportionate share of the sales tax. It's huge."

They both said they are willing to work with the pari-mutuel industry to give them equal treatment but "parity has 50 different definitions,'' Fresen said.

The bill sponsors said the bill will create the toughest gambling control in the nation but the 142-page bill does not give the new regulatory commission authority over all gambling in Florida. The gap in oversight leaves unregulated Internet cafes, the slot machine look-alikes that have proliferated across the state because of a loophole in the state's sweepstakes law.

"The bill doesn't in practice appear to reflect the intentions of the sponsors,'' said Marc Dunbar, a gaming law expert and lobbyist for Gulfstream Racetrack in Hallandale Beach.

Fresen said that the failure to include the sweepstakes statute was an oversight that will be corrected. Bogdanoff said that she and Fresen want to outlaw the so-called Internet cafes, and if legislators "can't pass a bill separately to get rid of Internet cafes, we will fold them into the bill,'' she said.

Mary Ellen Klas can be reached at meklas@MiamiHerald.com and on Twitter @MaryEllenKlas

Miami-Dade County Commission takes aim at mega-resorts casino plans 10/28/11 [Last modified: Friday, October 28, 2011 8:09pm]

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