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Legislative showdown set on casino plan

TALLAHASSEE — A bill that could bring three mega resort casinos to South Florida appeared doomed in the House on Thursday as backers struggled to cobble together a minimum eight-vote majority on the committee that will consider the controversial legislation today.

If the bill fails to get out of the committee, it "is dead,'' said Rep. Erik Fresen, R-Miami, the House sponsor.

As lawmakers met in an eight-hour floor session Thursday, Fresen spent the time buttonholing members of the Business and Consumer Affairs Subcommittee, which will hear the bill for the first time today.

"I actually don't think the policy of this is as huge as the politics of it," Fresen said. "Do the politics outweigh the policy? Maybe. I'll know what's going to happen (today)."

As proponents counted the votes Thursday, the anxiety among lawmakers was palpable. Lobbyists on both sides kept a constant count, comparing notes after they met with 15 committee members, many of whom refused to publicly commit. Throughout the day the count swung from 8-7 in favor of the bill, to 8-7 against it.

Unlike nearly every controversial bill that has moved through the House, the chamber's Republican leaders have not taken a caucus position and are allowing members to vote as they please, leaving many members unsettled. Adding to the anxiety is that the House redistricting maps have pitted at least 38 legislators into districts with another incumbent, forcing them into uncertain terrain come November.

Fresen's challenge has been to persuade committee members that by allowing three bids for the $2 billion resort casinos, South Florida's economy will be helped, the state's revenue stream will rise and their areas will not be harmed.

"It's a double-edged sword, the fact that it's almost a local bill,'' he said. "On the positive side, you can make the case that it's only Miami-Dade and Broward, it's never going to come to your back yard, which alleviates some concerns.

"On the other side, it's (that) this could potentially be a campaign issue for me and it's all for Miami-Dade and Broward. Why should I step up to the plate and get hit for something that's only for Miami-Dade and Broward?''

The bill is being heavily lobbied on both sides. Out-of-state casino developers, led by the Maylasian-based Genting Resorts World, the Las Vegas Sands, Wynn Resorts and Caesar have pumped more than $1 million into legislative campaign coffers in the past three months.

Genting was the first to lay claim to a potential site for its resort and convention center complex when it purchased the Miami Herald property last May.

On the other side is a coalition of business groups, led by Orlando-based Disney World. They are quietly being helped by the Seminole Tribe and the South Florida parimutuels, who fear the potential competition from resort casinos.

Fresen said he doesn't believe the issue will become a realistic campaign issue next year, "but I do believe that the monied interests that are against this bill will convince people that it will be."

He has heard the promises, he said. "Those that are for it have told me: 'On the campaign, we'll make you look great. We'll make you look like a job creator.' ''

By contrast, the opponents also have their promises, he said. "They say they will make you look like you sold Florida's soul to the devil."

On Thursday, Fresen released a 146-page amendment to his bill that includes a handful of changes designed to help win support for the effort.

Among the changes, his bill would impose a one-time $125 million licensing fee paid for by the resort casinos with the intention of using some of the money to buy out existing horse and dog tracks.

The measure bans, not regulates, Internet cafes and gives the state's existing slot racinos in Miami-Dade and Broward a 10 percent tax rate, as long as they guarantee customers get a 90 percent payout on their slot games.

A companion bill in the Senate, sponsored by Sen. Ellyn Bogdanoff, R-Fort Lauderdale, has passed a Senate committee, but only after it was expanded to allow for full Las Vegas casinos to be opened at any of the state's parimutuels.

The effort remains an uphill battle in the more conservative House.

"There is a tremendous amount of money on both sides of the issue, so it makes it a hyper-politicized,'' Fresen said.

Rep. Scott Plakon, R-Longwood, met with Fresen for an hour Thursday and then announced his opposition via Twitter.

Plakon, traditionally a gambling opponent, faces an uncertain election year after being drawn into the same district as Rep. Chris Dorworth, R-Lake Mary, and now must move to a neighboring district in Altamonte Springs next fall.

"I've had everyone you can imagine coming to talk to me for weeks and weeks,'' he said. "Now it's decision time."

Mary Ellen Klas can be reached at meklas@miamiherald.com.

Legislative showdown set on casino plan 02/02/12 [Last modified: Thursday, February 2, 2012 10:47pm]
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