‘Destination casino’ bill sets stage for gambling debate in Florida
By Kathleen Haughney and Nick Sortal, Sun Sentinel
6:32 p.m. EDT, October 26, 2011
TALLAHASSEE— A long-promised “destination casino” bill was filed Wednesday, allowing three Las Vegas-style operations in Miami-Dade and Broward counties and setting the stage for a full-throttle debate about gambling in Florida.
The bill will be one of the most heavily lobbied pieces of legislation during the 2012 legislative session, which starts Jan. 10. Social conservatives, as well as business and tourism groups, are opposed. South Florida pari-mutuels want their “racino” slot machines to be taxed less if casinos are allowed. And the Seminole Tribe will fight to maintain its current casino monopoly.
All these factions come with lobbyists and contributions they hope will sway lawmakers. One casino developer — Malaysia-based Genting Americas — has already spent more than $300 million for bayfront property in downtown Miami and so far this year has given $185,000 to the state Republican Party.
Text alerts: Get South Florida politics news on your phone
Sen. Ellyn Bogdanoff, R-Fort Lauderdale, a prime sponsor along with Miami Republican Rep. Erik Fresen, says the measure (HB 487, SB 710) is an attempt to “begin the conversation” about an industry that’s metastasized in recent years. With Seminole casinos, racinos, horse and dog tracks and jai-alai frontons, Florida is considered the fourth-largest gambling state in the nation, she said.
“This bill is more about creating a new strategic direction for the state of Florida,” she said. “In the past, it’s always been the industry driving the train.”
Here are some questions and answers about the bill.
Q: How many casinos would be allowed?
A: The bill authorizes three, each in either Miami-Dade or Broward counties, with applicants committing to a minimum investment of $2 billion. There’s a refundable $50 million application fee. Applicants would be judged in part on their ability to draw tourists from Latin America and Asia as well as the United States.
Q: What games would be allowed?
A: Slots, poker, blackjack, baccarat and — for the first time in Florida — roulette and craps.
Q. When might they open?
A: The bill is effective July 1, 2012. A commission is to award licenses by mid-2013.
Q: What companies are looking to move in?
A: Genting Malaysia, Las Vegas Sands and Wynn Resorts, also based in Las Vegas, have expressed interest. Genting has purchased bayfront land now occupied by The Miami Herald, and Sands has been scouting sites. MGM and Caesars reportedly also are interested.
Q: How big would they be?
A: A casino itself would be restricted to 10 percent of the property’s overall size. In Genting’s case — it has unveiled plans for 10 million square feet of hotels, restaurants, lounges and luxury shops — that could mean a casino of as much as 1 million square feet, the largest in the world. However, Genting has said its casino would be 234,000 square feet for regular gamblers, plus another 217,000 square feet for VIPs.
Q: Will there be any changes to South Florida racinos?
A: The bill does not include any sweeteners for existing gaming facilities. Racino operators have said they’d want their existing tax — 35 percent of profits — cut to the 10 percent that the bill would levy on casinos. Said Dan Adkins, vice president of Mardi Gras Gaming, who has called for more study of the impact of casinos, “If you’re just going to do it willly nilly, at least give us a level playing field.”
Q: How much money — and how many lobbyists — have been deployed for and against the bill?
A: A total count is difficult. Casino hotels have hired 43 so far. Racetracks have 76 lobbyists. The Seminole Tribe of Florida, whose casinos now are the only facilities in Florida offering blackjack, has six lobbyists and will likely fight the bill. Finally, business entities such as the Florida Chamber of Commerce (24 lobbyists) and Walt Disney World (21) also object to the plan.
Q: How many jobs would be created?
A: That’s a subject of debate. Sands has said it could create 8,000 to 16,000 direct jobs and 20,000 indirect jobs. Genting has estimated its property could create 100,000 jobs. However, groups like the Florida Chamber argue that casinos could kill local businesses that operate near them — and even depress Central Florida tourist venues.
Q: What about the Seminoles and the money they pay the state?
A: In 2010, the Seminole Tribe signed a 20-year compact, agreeing to pay Florida roughly $250 million a year over five years — and more later — in exchange for card games like blackjack and baccarat at five of its seven casinos and exclusive rights to operate slot machines outside of Miami-Dade and Broward counties. If casinos open before the first five years is up, the compact would be invalidated and the tribe could stop paying the state.
Q: What else could the Seminoles do?
A: Under federal law, the tribe is considered a sovereign nation and not subject to Florida law. Under rules established by the U.S. Department of the Interior, the tribe could operate any games that are authorized in Florida. So the Seminoles could add roulette and craps.
Q: Who would oversee these new casinos?
A: The bill creates a new Department of Gaming Control to oversee all licensing, rule-making and investigations into all gaming facilities in the state. A new seven-member commission a la Nevada will oversee the department and select the winning licensees.
Q: Why is that important?
A: Companies like Sands have said they wouldn’t move into the state without a strict regulatory structure. Any hints of corruption or wrongdoing at a Florida casino could jeopardize any Vegas-based operation’s license in Nevada, according to Peter Bernhard, chair of Nevada’s Gaming Commission. Several of the gaming company giants have argued that a strong regulatory system in Florida would ensure companies that move in are clean.