TALLAHASSEE — The Genting Group, the Malaysian casino giant, is seeding its bets across Florida's political spectrum this election year as it continues to secure the foothold it needs to build a Miami casino empire.
The company, which bought the Miami Herald building in downtown Miami with $236 million in cash in 2011 and tried unsuccessfully to get destination resort casinos approved by lawmakers this year, has spent $1.3 million so far in the 2012 election cycle and has embarked on a two-pronged political strategy.
Half of its money has been steered into a petition drive for a pro-casino amendment to the state Constitution that would bypass the Legislature to bring casinos to Florida. The other half of its cash so far — $486,000 to the Republican Party of Florida and $111,000 to the Florida Democratic Party — was primarily given before the legislative session and is being used to back incumbents in or political committees, according to a Times/Herald analysis of campaign reports.
The company said it has no direct involvement in any local or legislative races, countering rumors that it has recruited and screened candidates, and says that the cash it has sent to the parties is being steered to the campaigns of casino supporters and opponents alike.
"They made the decision they were going to be politically neutral come campaign season and they've kept to it,'' said Carlos Curbelo, a Miami lobbyist and consultant to Genting. "You can't see it for many of the other players."
But, its opponents say, the size of Genting's checks to the party leaders, its cash-rich approach to business, and the emergence of a ballot initiative is changing the political game in Tallahassee.
"This is probably the most challenging election cycle in the last 40 years and maybe for the next decade,'' said Jack Cory, a veteran lobbyist who represents the Greyhound breeders and racers association. "The out-of-state casino folks are causing everybody to focus a lot more resources into the issue and obviously everybody has to step up to the plate and be competitive."
Term limits and redistricting have created more competitive legislative districts than Florida has seen in decades and Genting's arrival on the scene corresponds with a surge of technological changes in the gambling industry that have made gaming more accessible and competitors more entrenched.
Storefront Internet cafes continue to proliferate around the state, virtually unregulated, spawning a new breed of political committees designed to protect their existence. Voter referendums will be on the ballot in Palm Beach, Brevard and Lee counties as local pari-mutuels try to exploit an untested loophole in state law that would allow them to install slot machines at their dog tracks and assure themselves a new stream of revenue.
And pressure is mounting to re-open a key provision of the state's gaming compact with the Seminole Tribe before it expires in 2015, in part a defensive attempt to counter the push by Genting, Las Vegas Sands and other casino operators to bring destination resort casinos to its backyard. The compact requires the Seminoles pay the state $233 million annually.
"Our level of opposition greatly increases based on the number of proposed sites they have in the state,'' said Dave Ramba, lobbyist for the Seminole Tribe.
Meanwhile, Genting appears ready to overpower all those forces by going directly to voters with a constitutional amendment on the 2014 statewide ballot. The company is not revealing its plans. But as soon as the language is drafted, it could start gathering signatures at polling sites as early as the August primary or November general election.
"The current effort is still at the exploratory phase,'' said Brian Hughes, former spokesman for Gov. Rick Scott hired by Genting's political committee formed to pursue the ballot amendment, New Jobs and Revenues for Florida.
The committee has hired Tony Fabrizio, the pollster who helped shape Scott's successful election, and he has begun testing ballot language and conducting focus groups.
Genting has also retained constitutional law expert Bruce Rogow to write the amendment and hired a Nevada-based firm that specializes in organizing petitions.
Among the issues to be decided: How many casino sites should be allowed? Should it be limited to Miami-Dade and Broward, which would forfeit the revenue sharing from the Seminole tribe's operations in those counties, or should a casino be allowed in Palm Beach, Tampa or elsewhere, which would undermine the entire revenue sharing compact?
Another key question: Will Genting move forward with a ballot amendment in the same year the governor seeks re-election, potentially drawing casino supporters to the polls in a dicey election year? Whatever the company decides, observers say the threat of the amendment gives Genting added leverage against a recalcitrant Legislature and a reluctant governor in the meantime.
The conventional wisdom is that the conservative Florida Legislature is opposed to gambling for ideological reasons. But the opposition to Genting is largely pragmatic. That's because lawmakers are well aware of polls that show a majority of Floridians support casino gambling in all parts of the state. And the pari-mutuel industry, the Disney-dominated theme park industry and the Seminole Tribe receive a hometown advantage from legislators as they to work together to keep outsiders at bay. They, too, are writing political campaign checks.
The Seminole Tribe of Florida, for example, the owner of the Hard Rock casinos and operator of Florida's only black jack tables, has given $443,000 to the Republican and Democratic parties this election cycle, (two-thirds of it to the GOP.) Disney and its affiliates have contributed $1.8 million to political campaigns, exceeding even Genting's contribution, and Universal Studios also has spent $448,000.
Meanwhile, Genting is keeping its cards close to the vest. The company's political and legislative strategy "is an evolving process,'' said Cory Tilley, Genting spokesman. "It will come into shape in the coming months."
Mary Ellen Klas can be reached at meklas@MiamiHerald.com.