TALLAHASSEE -- Genting Group, the Malaysian casino giant, is seeding its bets across Florida’s political spectrum this election year as it continues to secure the foothold it needs to build a Miami casino empire.
The company, which bought the Miami Herald building in downtown Miami with $236 million in cash in 2011 and tried unsuccessfully to get destination resort casinos approved by lawmakers this year, has spent $1.3 million so far in the 2012 election cycle and has embarked on a two-pronged political strategy.
Half of its money has been steered into a petition drive for a pro-casino amendment to the state Constitution that would bypass the Legislature to bring casinos to Florida. The other half of its cash so far — $486,000 to the Republican Party of Florida and $111,000 to the Florida Democratic Party — was primarily given before the legislative session and is being used to back incumbents or political committees, according to a Herald/Times analysis of campaign reports.
The company said it has no direct involvement in any local or legislative races, countering rumors that it has recruited and screened candidates, and says that the cash it has sent to the parties is being steered to the campaigns of casino supporters and opponents alike.
“They made the decision they were going to be politically neutral come campaign season and they’ve kept to it,’’ said Carlos Curbelo, a Miami lobbyist and consultant to Genting. “You can’t see it for many of the other players.”
But, its opponents say, the size of Genting’s checks to the party leaders, its cash-rich approach to business, and the emergence of a ballot initiative is changing the political game in Tallahassee.
“This is probably the most challenging election cycle in the last 40 years and maybe for the next decade,’’ said Jack Cory, a veteran lobbyist who represents the Greyhound breeders and racers association. “The out-of-state casino folks are causing everybody to focus a lot more resources into the issue and obviously everybody has to step up to the plate and be competitive.”
Term limits and redistricting have created more competitive legislative districts than Florida has seen in decades and Genting’s arrival on the scene corresponds with a surge of technological changes in the gambling industry that have made gaming more accessible and competitors more entrenched.
Storefront Internet cafes continue to proliferate around the state virtually unregulated, spawning a new breed of political committees designed to protect their existence. Voter referendums will be on the ballot in Palm Beach, Brevard and Lee counties as local pari-mutuels try to exploit an untested loophole in state law that would allow them to install slot machines at their dog tracks and assure themselves a new stream of revenue.
And pressure is mounting to reopen a key provision of the state’s gaming compact with the Seminole Tribe before it expires in 2015, in part a defensive attempt to counter the push by Genting, Las Vegas Sands and other casino operators to bring destination resort casinos to its backyard. The compact requires the Seminoles pay the state $233 million annually.
“Our level of opposition greatly increases based on the number of proposed sites they have in the state,’’ said Dave Ramba, lobbyist for the Seminole Tribe.