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"No gambling' rule attached to dock leases

The state's three newest agreements with docking facilities prohibit letting gambling ships tie up there.

In June, Gov. Jeb Bush and the Florida Cabinet decided that the state should no longer be a landlord to gambling ships.

Thursday, Florida issued its first-ever "no gambling" leases for three docking facilities located on underwater state-owned land: one for marina expansion in the city of Gulfport, another that would allow Port Manatee to accommodate more deep-water ships (related story, Page 1A) and one for a marina in Clay County.

No gambling ships operate out of those locations now, and because of Thursday's vote, none will in the near future. The Cabinet's action is yet another sign that Florida means business when it comes to limiting the state's "Cruises to Nowhere" gambling ships, which take revelers 9 miles offshore, where they can gamble legally outside state waters.

Thursday's action doesn't stop any currently operating boats. Companies with existing leases _ including eight ships in Pinellas and the North Suncoast _ will be allowed to operate until their leases run out. Some of the leases, like the one for the Europa Sky out of Madeira Beach's John's Pass Village, last until 2021. But other leases are more short-term, and will likely not be able to be renewed when their leases expire.

The gambling boats still could dock at some private marinas and ports.

The gambling boat industry is fighting the new restrictions, deluging the governor's office with letters from cruise ship workers pleading to keep their jobs.

Bush has responded with a firm letter: "Floridians have rejected casino gambling in Florida. A constitutional amendment that would have permitted it was overwhelmingly defeated a number of years ago. As a matter of policy, the Cabinet and I have decided that the state should not serve as an agent for promoting this type of activity."

The gambling boat industry is vowing to sue.

Casino ship owners employ more than 4,000 people in Florida, pay millions of dollars in taxes and buy more than $100-million worth of goods from other Florida companies each year, according to the Florida Day Cruise Association.

Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris questioned the wording of the gambling vessel ban, which bars "cruises to nowhere" during the period of the lease as well as during "any renewals, extensions, modifications or assignments thereof."

Harris said she was concerned that a marina on state land where casino ships dock might delay making necessary improvements for fear that a change in the lease might trigger the new policy.

The governor and Cabinet directed staff members to clarify the language and bring it back at the next meeting.

_ Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.

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