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Florida bill would allow gambling permit transfers to other locations

The bill was filed by Tampa Bay legislator Blaise Ingoglia.
 
In this 2021 photo, then-state Rep. Blaise Ingoglia debates an amendment during a legislative session at the Capitol in Tallahassee.
In this 2021 photo, then-state Rep. Blaise Ingoglia debates an amendment during a legislative session at the Capitol in Tallahassee. [ WILFREDO LEE | AP ]
Published Dec. 22, 2023|Updated Dec. 22, 2023

A bill filed Thursday in the Florida Senate would allow for the relocation of gambling permits, prompting questions about whether the legislation is aimed at bringing new casinos to Miami-Dade County.

Senate Bill 1054, filed by state Sen. Blaise Ingoglia, R-Spring Hill, says gaming permit holders should be allowed to transfer their permits to a new location. Under the legislation, those with greyhound dog racing permits and authorization to conduct casino activities could move their operation of “all pari-mutuel wagering and gaming activities” to a location within a 30-mile radius.

The moves would be allowed regardless of any local government regulations that might say otherwise, according to the bill language.

The proposal set off alarm bells for gaming opponents who have sought to block the introduction of gambling to new areas of South Florida, including by opposing a casino at the Fontainebleau Hotel and Resort in Miami Beach.

“It’s an existential threat to our community,” said Dan Gelber, the mayor of Miami Beach until last month and a longtime anti-gaming advocate.

In 2021, a $500 million deal negotiated by Gov. Ron DeSantis with the Seminole Tribe of Florida said the tribe could offer online sports betting across the state. As part of the agreement, the tribe said it would not oppose new casinos more than 15 miles from the tribe’s gambling hubs in the Hollywood area, including the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel and Casino.

That provision was seen by some as a favor by Florida Republicans to former President Donald Trump and his golf resort in Doral, and to Jeffrey Soffer, the billionaire real estate mogul whose family owns the Fontainebleau. Both facilities are slightly more than 15 miles from the Hollywood casino.

Trump’s son, Eric, has called the Trump Doral “unmatched from a gaming perspective.”

Soffer, meanwhile, has sought for years to transfer a gambling permit from his Hallandale Beach-based Big Easy Casino to the Fontainebleau, pitching elected officials on the idea in 2020 while wining and dining them on his megayacht.

The bill filed Thursday by Ingoglia doesn’t mention the Fontainebleau or Trump Doral. But it includes a provision that says gaming permit holders could not relocate their permits anywhere within 15 miles of any Seminole Tribe gaming facility in Broward County, mirroring language in the 2021 deal.

Ingoglia did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Soffer could not be reached.

Gelber said the bill appeared to be an attempt “to deliver casinos over the objection of communities and notwithstanding Florida’s constitution.”

The Miami Beach City Commission voted in 2017 to ban casinos and other gambling facilities citywide. In 2021, the Doral City Council approved a similar measure, banning casinos and gambling unless approved by residents in a referendum.

A 2018 constitutional amendment approved in a statewide referendum gave voters the exclusive right to authorize casino gambling expansions, including slot machines and electronic betting games. The Seminole Tribe backed the amendment at the time.

“If the Legislature goes along with (the bill) and the courts fail to do their job, there’s no way this will simply be a single casino,” Gelber said.

Norman Braman, the billionaire auto magnate and staunch anti-gambling activist, said in a text message Thursday that he would continue to oppose the expansion of casino gambling “by all means necessary” to prevent Miami from becoming “another Las Vegas.”

State Sen. Jason Pizzo, who represents parts of Miami-Dade and Broward counties, said he plans to oppose the bill.

“The bill sucks, and I look forward to it dying,” Pizzo said in a text message.

A companion bill has not yet been filed in the Florida House.

Times/Herald Tallahassee bureau reporter Romy Ellenbogen contributed to this report.