Legislator wants Tampa Bay included in debate over casino resorts

Legislator wants Tampa Bay included in debate over casino resorts

State Sen. Dennis Jones suggested the Pinellas County beachfront would be a natural venue for such a resort.

Freshly Squeezed Politics blog
Published: October 08, 2011
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House and Senate lawmakers are again proposing to bring destination casino mega-resorts to Florida — but this time, only in Miami-Dade and Broward counties.

Don’t expect the rest of Florida to take that lying down, said Sen. Dennis Jones of Seminole.

“It would be naïve to think that other parts of the state would not want to get those jobs and those tax revenues,” said Jones, who chairs the Senate committee that typically vets gambling legislation. “I’d hope we would take a broader approach.”

Jones sponsored a bill this spring that would have split up the state into five casino regions, allowing one destination resort to be built in each if the hosting county approved it by referendum.

Casino operations could comprise up to 10 percent of each resort. All told, the projects were billed as representing tens of thousands of jobs and more than a billion dollars annually in tax revenues.

At the time, Jones suggested the Pinellas County beachfront would be a natural venue for such a resort. He eventually withdrew his bill in the wake of heavy opposition from the state’s existing pari-mutuel industry. A competing bill from Miami Republican Rep. Erik Fresen and Miami Gardens Sen. Oscar Braynon, a Democrat, likewise failed.

Fresen is now sponsoring the House version of a bill that would permit up to three casino resort licenses across Miami-Dade and Broward counties, where several large casino operators have set their sights.

The Genting Group of Malaysia already plans to build a $3 billion resort in downtown Miami that would include casino operations if lawmakers approve. Wynn Resorts, Caesar’s and Las Vegas Sands are also eying South Florida properties for future resort facilities.

Fresen’s bill, sponsored in the Senate by Ft. Lauderdale Republican Ellyn Bogdanoff, would again limit Vegas-style casino games to 10 percent of each resort. Bidders for the licenses would have to invest $2 billion per facility. Fresen, who said the bill will emerge from the drafting process soon, said he anticipates seven to 10 applicants for the three licenses, which would likely drive up the price to “north of $3 billion.”

Limiting the proposal to Miami-Dade and Broward — where voters have already approved expanded gambling by referendum — is part of the strategy for getting it through the Legislature in 2012, he said. “It’s a local consensus kind-of-a-thing.”

Jones’ statewide approach alienated some communities and lawmakers because it “posed the threat of having these things pop up in neighborhoods where voters haven’t determined yet that they want them,” Fresen said. “That bill had a little more fear attached to it than this one does.”

That’s a very South-Florida point of view, said Jones, who still believes that with its airport, highway access and beach amenities, the Bay area remains a formidable potential venue. Civic and business leaders in Jacksonville, Daytona, Brevard County and the Panhandle also have expressed interest, he said.

Lee County wants to be part of the discussion, too, said Rep. Matthew Caldwell, R-Fort Myers, where a local developer is already pushing to build a casino resort. “When this proposal starts to get serious traction, I’d like for Lee County to have a slot available to us.”

The developer of The Forum at Fort Myers has hired a consulting firm to build support and launch a petition drive to expand gambling in Lee County.

“We’re taking a reverse course,” consultant Phil Nichol said. “We’re starting with the local initiative to pre-legalize the expansion before the state does.”

Casino resorts had mixed support this spring within the Tampa Bay delegation, where some skeptics cited social ills associated with expanded gambling and the potential for devastating existing pari-mutuel facilities like Tampa Bay Downs.

“I believe once you stamp yourself as something like Atlantic City, Las Vegas, I think you change your identity,” Sen. Jim Norman, a Tampa Republican, said in January. “That’s why I don’t think Florida is right for this.”

Senate President Mike Haridopolos, who says he wants the legislation to get a vote on the Senate floor in 2012, has removed Norman and one other social conservative from Jones’ committee, paving the way for the bill to move forward. Haridopolos also added Bogdanoff to the panel.

Another positive development for bill supporters this week: the First District Court of Appeals affirmed a lower court’s decision that Florida lawmakers can authorize slot machines anywhere in the state.

The pari-mutuels that brought the case are expected to appeal the decision to the state Supreme Court. But the appellate court’s decision “removes one more obstacle from the table” for casino resorts, Fresen said. “Had it gone the other way, it would have said the Legislature does not have the power to regulate and authorize gaming.”

It remains unclear what the prospects are for Fresen’s bill in the House, where Speaker Dean Cannon has been averse to expanding gambling. This spring, Cannon disbanded the House panel tasked with vetting the resorts legislation without assigning it to another committee.

Much of Fresen’s and Bogdanoff’s bill focuses on the creation of a new Commission on Gambling to regulate the industry.

That independent commission — not the Legislature — ought to decide where in the state to offer licenses for casino resorts, Jones said. The stakes are high, he said, noting that “anything we do will have an impact on the Seminole Compact.”

Under the 20-year deal that Gov. Charlie Crist and the Seminoles signed last year, the tribe gained exclusive rights to offer blackjack and baccarat at five of its casinos, including the Hard Rock in Tampa, and Class-III slot machines at its casinos outside of Broward and Miami-Dade counties.

In exchange, the tribe must pay the state at least $1 billion over five years and a percentage of its revenues for the next 15 years. If Florida allows others businesses to offer the Vegas-style games, the tribe can stop making payments to the state.

Barry Richard, attorney for the Seminoles, said that with that much money already guaranteed, lawmakers would be wise to approach the Seminoles about building a casino resort before starting a bidding war between out-of-state operators.

“The tribe has always indicated its willingness to do that,” he said.

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