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In Tallahassee on Thursday, gaming, gaming, gaming

TALLAHASSEE — Gambling talks continue in the Legislature on Thursday, as the House committee charged with drafting a gaming compact with the Seminole Tribe of Florida considers the impact of Vegas-style casinos on the Sunshine State's tourism industry and economy. Also, the Senate's budget committees will meet for the first time since Senate President Jeff Atwater released information on how much money they have to work with.

Executives from the Las Vegas Sands made their rounds throughout the Capitol on Wednesday in preparation for their report to the House Committee on the Seminole Indian Compact Review.

The committee will hear a report from legislative economist Amy Baker on the revenue potential of expanding gaming in Florida from auctioning off new gaming licenses, followed by a presentation from two executives from the Las Vegas Sands Resorts, the mega-convention center and casino company that has opened similar resorts in Macao and Singapore. Sands officials have been pitching to legislators that expanded gambling — and the affiliated resorts — are the logical next step to bolster the state economy and its service and tourism industry.

The idea is to create a new class of gambling offerings in Florida: the resort casino. Under their proposal, the state would open up bids for four resort casinos throughout the state, including Tampa and South Florida, and attract international convention business to the state. The resorts would devote no more than 10 percent of the floor space to casino games, and the state would agree to limit their competition.

They say this kind of gaming will be the best competition the state could offer to the Seminole Tribe, while stressing the resort casinos would not compete with Florida's existing parimutuel industry as long as that industry is also given Las Vegas-style slot machines.

"Their market is not the market we are looking to attract," said Andy Abboud, vice president of Las Vegas Sands Government Relations. Instead, the parimutuels appeal to a regional market while the Sands' project in Florida would attract visitors from South America and Europe, he said.

"They can survive with expanding games under this model," said Nick Iarossi, the Sands' Tallahassee lobbyist.

Over in the Senate, committees crafting 2010-11 budget proposals for education, health care, transportation and other areas will discuss for the first time the initial allocations released Wednesday by Atwater. Among the items for consideration are so-called "member projects" in some senators' districts.

Atwater's allocations include nearly $9 billion for K-12 education, $3.4 for colleges and universities and $6.4 billion for health care. He includes more than $2 billion in federal stimulus dollars for education and Medicaid.

But the state faces a $3.2 billion deficit, and Atwater and House Speaker Larry Cretul have warned that cuts are unavoidable. Still, today the Senate Transportation and Economic Development Appropriations Committee will consider chairman Mike Fasano's tentative approval to spend about $2 million for hurricane shelters and cultural facilities in the districts of a handful of senators.

One of the biggest line items is $750,000 for the Mike Fasano Regional Hurricane Shelter in the town of Hudson in Fasano's district. The money would help the Premiere Health agency get up and running to provide health care to the indigent. The line item surfaced for the first time Wednesday, shortly after Atwater sent out the list of budget allocations.

"There are member projects every year. You know that," Fasano said. "I don't have any problem telling somebody that I wanted to fund a community health facility that will help the uninsured and the underinsured."

Fasano said the hearing will provide a full public airing for other member projects in the districts of Sen. Paula Dockery, R-Lakeland; Ronda Storms, R-Valrico; and Tony Hill, D-Jacksonville.

Times/Herald staff writers Steve Bousquet and Mary Ellen Klas contributed to this report. Shannon Colavecchio can be reached at scolavecchi@sptimes.com or (850) 224-7263.

In Tallahassee on Thursday, gaming, gaming, gaming 03/11/10 [Last modified: Thursday, March 11, 2010 7:26pm]
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