TALLAHASSEE — The sponsor of the bill to bring resort casinos to South Florida believes that the arrival of gambling giant Genting, the state's dismal economy and a rush of casino cash gives legislators a chance this year to catch "lightning in a bottle" and pass the long-sought legislation.
"There is an appetite now to catch these destination resorts and potentially inject $5 billion to $6 billion into the local economy — and that trickles up to the state,'' said Rep. Erik Fresen, R-Miami.
"If we weren't in double-digit unemployment and a receding economy, I don't think there would be much appetite for this bill but, in this environment, it's almost an obligation to discuss it."
In the next two weeks, Fresen and Sen. Ellyn Bogdanoff, R-Fort Lauderdale, will unveil their proposed legislation to allow Genting and its competitors to bid on three licenses to bring resort-style casinos to South Florida.
The proposals will also consolidate the regulation of the existing gambling industry under a single gaming commission and regulate or outlaw so-called internet cafes that have exploited a loophole in state law to open storefront casinos, the legislators said.
"This is the year it can happen,'' said Bogdanoff, who has opposed expanded gambling most of her legislative career. She believes "the time has come" for the state to pave the way for private sector competition to the Seminole Tribe, which now has a monopoly on casino games in Florida.
Not everyone is convinced Florida is having casino-lightning moment.
Dan Adkins, vice president of Hartman Tyner, owners of Mardi Gras Casino in Hollywood, for example, agrees the odds may be better than usual for getting a casino bill passed. But, after decades of trying, he predicts the odds "are still long."
Part of the problem is that the resort casinos can't agree on what they want. (Genting and Wynn Resorts want legislators to allow for multiple gaming permits to be issued in Miami, for example, while Sands wants a single permit.) Local horse and dog tracks still hold sway over many lawmakers, and the Seminole Tribe pays $250 million a year to keep competitors out.
To gear up for the fight, Genting, the Las Vegas Sands, Wynn Resorts and Caesars Palace have hired dozens of lobbyists, written thousands of dollars in political checks and, in Genting's case, invested millions in Miami real estate.
Genting paid $236 million in cash to buy the Miami Herald's 13.9 acres site on Biscayne Bay for a hotel, condominiums, office and retail space and a convention center. It is also negotiating the purchase of surrounding properties.
On Wednesday, the company will unveil its architect's renderings of the $3 billion resort plan that supporters say will change the Miami skyline. Genting officials say they will pursue the development regardless of the casino bill but passing it will accelerate the timeline.
"The only thing to take from the Genting presentation is this: This isn't 'pie-in-the-sky','' Fresen said. "It's an indication of what people are prepared to pump into the economy when this bill passes.''
Genting alone has hired a stable of high profile lobbyists. Jonathan Kilman is the company's lead lobbyist in Tallahassee and works with three other lobbyists in his Foley & Lardner law firm. Genting's Bayfront Development subsidiary has hired lobbyist-fundraiser Brian Ballard, who is close to Gov. Rick Scott.
Former GOP director of state House campaigns Chip Case is under contract with Genting, as is former U.S. Rep. Lincoln Diaz Balart and Miami political consultant Carlos Curbelo. And in what may be the most influential hire, the company has sign up lobbying newcomer Harkley Thornton, an Orlando lawyer and businessman who is close friends with House Speaker Dean Cannon.
Cannon, an Orlando Republican, is reluctant to openly support resort casinos. He leaves the door open to a proposal that genuinely results in a retraction, not expansion, of gambling. But, he admits, "I'm skeptical."
"Any time you try to open that window, everyone tries to jump through it and you never actually reduce gambling; you increase it,'' Cannon told the Herald/Times.
In the Senate, where a bill promoting casino resorts was heard last year, the atmosphere is much more receptive.
Senate President Mike Haridopolos, R-Merritt Island, last year distanced himself from the push for resort casinos when he was a candidate for U.S. Senate. But since dropping out of the race, he has told supporters he is open to the plan. Last week, he flew to Las Vegas for what his office described as a fundraising trip.
Meanwhile, Haridopolos' friend and political advisor Frank Tsamoutales was hired to lobby for Caesar's Entertainment Company, the owner of the Caesar's Palace in Las Vegas. The company is among those poised to bid for a casino license and is rumored to be in negotiations to buy Gulfstream race track in Hallandale Beach.
The casino industry is "paying at least $2 million in lobbying fees,'' speculated Adkins of Mardi Gras casinos. He vows to fight any attempt to give them less what the resort casinos get.
Meanwhile, the Seminole Tribe of Florida says that it supports the status quo. Under a gambling compact with the state, it has the exclusive right to the casino games of blackjack, chemin de fer and baccarat in exchange for an annual contribution to the state of $250 million for the next three years. If lawmakers allow competitors into Florida, the state forfeits that revenue.
Fresen and Bogdanoff say the goal of their legislation is to achieve a "net reduction" in gaming in Florida to win over Cannon and conservative House members. But they also need to appease supporters of the existing pari-mutuel industry and produce the kind of economic activity and job development that could win support of the governor.
Their proposals will start out identical and be more than 60 pages long, they said. Still undecided is how to treat the existing horse and dog tracks and jai alai frontons in South Florida.
The pari-mutuels say they also should be allowed to build resort casinos and get credit for the investment they made in their facilities since installing slot machines. But Fresen and others are skeptical.
"I'm not in the business of putting anybody out of business but, with the type of gaming we have, there is a legitimate argument that it's recycled dollars,'' Fresen said. He and House Republican Leaders Carlos Lopez Cantera of Miami predict the resort casinos will draw a different clientele.
"They tend to appeal to people from other countries and other states and the pari-mutuels just don't have the facilities to do that,'' Lopez Cantera said.
Fresen concedes that the bill "will be not only a big hairy monkey" but likely be hit by the "cannibalistic disputes" that have pitted one gambling company against another in debates of the past.
"I'm going to try to manage all of that,'' he said. But to do that, and catch casino lightning, may take a super-human feat, he joked. "If I succeed, I'm going to be a Marvel comic — and fitted for a cape."
Miami Herald staff writer Marc Caputo contributed to this report. Mary Ellen Klas can be reached at meklas@MiamiHerald.com.