DeSantis supports casino effort opposed by Miami Beach officials

While the proposal appears dead in the Florida Legislature this year, the governor’s backing could signal a future showdown.
View of the Fontainebleau in Miami Beach, on Feb. 2, 2022.
View of the Fontainebleau in Miami Beach, on Feb. 2, 2022. [ PEDRO PORTAL | El Nuevo Herald ]
Published Feb. 6

While legislation that could have brought a casino to the Fontainebleau Miami Beach appears dead in the Legislature this year, the effort has gained the public support of a powerful ally: Gov. Ron DeSantis.

Historically, gaming deals have been thorny issues to get passed through the Legislature. But DeSantis has already nailed down a long-sought gaming agreement with the Seminole Tribe of Florida — and with three years left in office, he is now showing support for legislation that appears tailored for Jeffrey Soffer to open a casino at his iconic hotel.

The governor’s office said it supported bills that would have let Soffer transfer the Big Easy Casino’s gaming permit in Hallandale Beach to the Fontainebleau because it would have taken a casino “out of a residential, blue-collar community to a tourist-focused beachfront hotel.”

In a statement issued this week, the governor’s office added that the proposal would have converted “many acres of former dog track and gambling venues into needed housing and beautification for Broward County” as a result of closing down a “large facility.” The statement was first reported by Politico Florida.

Additionally, the governor’s office said the relocation of the gaming permit would have “brought over $120 million” to South Florida “simply by moving existing slot machines to an existing hotel.”

DeSantis’ endorsement of the proposal this week marks the first time the governor has publicly acknowledged his support for what Soffer representatives have sold to lawmakers as the pathway for a glitzy, Las Vegas-style casino at the beachfront Miami Beach resort.

While Republican legislative leaders have said the proposal does not have a path forward this year, the governor’s backing could signal a future casino showdown in Tallahassee, considering the bill — sponsored in the House by a Republican Miami-Dade lawmaker — has drawn fierce pushback from Miami Beach officials and residents as well as a group of wealthy South Florida business executives that includes hedge fund billionaire Ken Griffin.

Opponents of the casino last week were orchestrating an aggressive lobbying campaign to kill the bill in Tallahassee because they believed DeSantis was quietly pushing Republican legislative leaders to move the bill forward.

The bill was scheduled to be heard in the Senate this week but it was pulled from consideration after Senate President Kathleen Passidomo indicated it would not have a path forward in the Senate.

House Speaker Paul Renner said he spoke to the governor about the gambling legislation. After the meeting, he said they reached a “consensus” that the Legislature would keep its focus on the multimillion-dollar agreement with the Seminole Tribe of Florida that has allowed the Tribe to offer mobile sports bets anywhere in the state as well as craps and roulette at their casinos.

“That’s where everybody is comfortable,” Renner said, noting there were no plans to hear the bill this year.

DeSantis has not commented on Republican leaders choosing not to move the bills forward. But his office issued a lengthy statement this week that explained why the governor was in support of the idea.

Among the reasons, the governor’s office said the proposal “would not have authorized any new gaming or construction of new casinos.”

DeSantis’ office did not explicitly mention the Fontainebleau in the statement. The governor’s office did not respond when asked if Soffer influenced the governor’s stance on the bill.

Soffer gave $1 million to a super PAC that supported DeSantis’ presidential bid, according to federal filings. DeSantis also has been known to travel on a jet owned by Soffer over the years — travel arrangements that DeSantis has defended as legal but that critics have said was a way for special interests to get access to the governor.

Entities tied to the real estate mogul also poured more than $300,000 last year into PACs supporting state legislators, including nine Republicans who represent Miami-Dade County.

Miami Beach residents and officials have long opposed casinos in the city. At a virtual town hall last week, Mayor Steven Meiner said people he had spoken to were “uniformly against” the idea because it would bring crime and traffic.

“I am going to battle this on every front and every layer that I have at my disposal,” he said.