AP Photo/Kin Cheung
Monday, Jan. 9, 2012 | 2 a.m.
MIAMI — As the Florida Legislature sprints into action Tuesday for its annual two-month session, lawmakers will face the politically volatile task of redrawing the electoral map (sure to attract a court challenge) and devising new ways to plug a $2 billion deficit in the state budget.
But it is the “do we, don’t we” battle over whether to allow resort casinos into the state that has the state capital’s adrenaline pumping. The bill, which proposes opening the door to three large casinos in Florida, is expected to be one of the few major nonbudget-related pieces of legislation to be voted on this busy session.
With a few powerful Republican lawmakers either opposed to the bill or skeptical of its benefits and the session packed with other business, odds that resort casinos will be setting down stakes this year in South Florida, where major casino companies have shown the most interest, are getting longer. Some lawmakers worry that casinos will do more harm than good by tarnishing Florida’s wholesome beach-and-theme-park image, a position espoused by the influential Florida Chamber of Commerce, the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association and Walt Disney World.
The first test will be today, a day before the session’s official opening, when the bill, which was revamped last week to try to garner more support, is scheduled to face an initial Senate committee vote. The biggest change made to the bill involves giving voters a say on the casino issue, a tactic that could make it more difficult for lawmakers to oppose it. A referendum would let voters decide whether to expand gambling in their county and allow all counties to compete for one of the three casino permits. The casinos would have to invest at least $2 billion to qualify.
“Let the voters decide if they want or don’t want it,” said the Senate bill’s author, Ellyn Bogdanoff, a Broward County Republican.
Sen. Dennis L. Jones, the Republican chairman of the Senate’s Committee on Regulated Industries, which is to vote on the bill today, said Friday that he would support it. Bogdanoff, he said, had addressed most of the committee’s concerns in her revised bill. Jones also pointed out that while the bill would expand casino gambling, it would also pave the way for much-needed large convention centers and hotels in the state.
“We have cut the budget in the last three years, and when they get up there and realize we are another $2 billion short, you get the feeling maybe the time has come,” Jones said. “We need some new revenue.”
But one of Bogdanoff’s chief opponents is Sen. John Thrasher, a Republican from north Florida who is the chairman of the Senate Rules Committee, the bill’s final stop before it reaches the Senate floor. He has made it clear that he believes the bill would harm the state and could dissuade families from visiting, a position taken by most conservatives in the Legislature. Republicans hold a supermajority in the Florida House and Senate.
“I do not believe we ought to be expanding gaming,” Thrasher said. “I think we have enough gaming in the state of Florida. We are not known as a gaming state, in spite of what some folks have said. We are known as a tourist-oriented, family-friendly tourism state. And to change the brand of Florida at this point to a gaming state, to me, is going in the wrong direction.”
Bogdanoff said she had received assurances from Senate President Mike Haridopolos that if the bill cleared the committees, he would allow an up-or-down vote on the Senate floor.
Some Democratic leaders said they were concerned about allowing private casinos in South Florida. They said they worried that the bill was moving too quickly.
“I think that the bill has serious problems,” said Sen. Nan H. Rich, the Democratic leader, who sits on the committee scheduled to vote today.
Rich said she was pleased that a change in the bill would give South Florida’s parimutuels — its jai alai frontons and racetracks (they are allowed slot machines) — the same 10 percent tax rate as the proposed casinos. But she said she worried about the $1 billion in state revenue from the Seminole Indian casinos in Florida, which would be lost over five years, if private casinos were approved.
Allowing private casinos would breach a compact the state signed with the Seminoles, and the tribe would no longer owe the money.
Her biggest concerns, though, are broader.
“I have issues with the concept of that much gaming,” Rich said. “Those three destination resorts change the face of South Florida, particularly Dade County, which is where I grew up.”
Adding that the bill should not be rushed, she said, “We don’t have the answers yet to what the true impact of this will be economically and to the quality of life.”
But Bogdanoff and her allies, including theGreater Miami Chamber of Commerce (it supports the bill, with certain conditions) and Florida’s construction industry, said the Legislature was not facing the fact that Florida already has lots of gambling.
Bringing high-end resort casinos will attract new tourists and create thousands of jobs at a time when the state’s unemployment rate is 10 percent, Bogdanoff said. Also, she said, a gambling commission would serve as a vigilant overseer of gambling rules and laws.
To sweeten the pot for both sides, Bogdanoff added measures to regulate so-called Internet sweepstakes cafes, ban new parimutuel permits, lower the tax rate for casinos and parimutuels to 10 percent and compel casinos to put at least $250,000 into a fund to help compulsive gamblers.
“I’m trying not to give away the house just because I am trying politically to get their support,” she said.
The Las Vegas Sands Corp. and other gambling companies have been scouting locations in South Florida. The Genting Group, a Malaysian company, has bought bayfront property in downtown Miami to build a resort (with a casino or without). Genting also has its sights set on New York City, where it hopes to enter into a joint venture with the state to build the country’s largest convention center, at the Aqueduct racetrack in Queens. It operates a “racino” — a combination racetrack and gambling parlor — there and is lobbying for a casino.
Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo of New York is seeking a constitutional amendment to legalize casino gambling in the state as a way to raise revenue.
In Florida, casino advocates say a referendum proposal should make it easier for the bill to clear the Legislature.
“It’s tough for lawmakers to say that citizens shouldn’t have the right to vote, to decide if they want this in the community or not,” said Nick Iarossi, a lobbyist for Las Vegas Sands.
The Florida House, which is generally more averse to gambling than the Senate, has done nothing with the bill. The House speaker, Dean Cannon, a Republican who has said he is philosophically opposed to gambling, has done little to inspire hope among casino proponents.
Cannon recently said getting the bill through the House this year would be an “uphill battle,” with the Legislature facing a difficult budget and the onerous task of redistricting, all within two months.