Florida legislators came to the heart of the state’s gambling country in Coconut Creek on Wednesday and heard from a packed house of well-organized — and tame — speakers who urged lawmakers to protect the incumbent industries as they consider expanding gambling in Florida.
“I am not a fan of destination resorts,’’ said Joy Cooper, mayor of Hallandale Beach, one of about 600 people who attended the three-hour hearing on Wednesday. “Our pari-mutuels have already invested time, effort and supported local businesses and paid local taxes.’’
The Senate Gaming Committee heard public testimony at Broward College’s north campus as it prepares legislation to rewrite the state’s gambling laws and again consider whether to allow for the arrival of so-called destination resort casinos in Miami Dade and Broward.
“Any attempt to expand new casinos in our area should encourage and incentivize the participants who have a track record,’’ said Brian Johnson of Fort Lauderdale. “If that sounds like a shameless plug, well, it is.”
It was the first of four hearings as the Senate takes the lead on an ambitious rewrite of the gambling laws. But Sen. Garrett Richter, R-Naples, chairman of the committee, said that while he is leaning towards the creation of a gaming commission, he is not prepared to say if it will include expanded gambling. Instead, he said, his focus is to eliminate inconsistencies in the law and “replace the current makeshift structure with a comprehensive statewide approach to gaming policy."
That threatens Florida’s incumbent pari-mutuel industries, which have lobbied legislators for decades to carve out the state’s current tangled regulatory scheme. It also equates to an opening for the powerful mega casinos, which have already identified locations in Miami Dade and Broward to locate a resort casino.
The meeting was well scripted by the interest groups, with signs proclaiming “No Casinos” and “Destinations Now!” lining the entryway.
The hearing comes on the heels of a consultant’s report commissioned by the state House and Senate that slapped the Legislature and the state for being asleep at the switch when it comes to regulating gambling in Florida.
“The lack of a defining gaming policy has not limited the growth of gaming,’’ said Michael Pollock, chairman of Spectrum Gaming, which prepared the report, at a House meeting earlier this month. “The question is, will the legislature guide future of gaming or be guided by it.”
The hearing in Coconut Creek was well scripted by the interest groups, with signs proclaiming “No Casinos” and “Destinations Now!” lining the entryway. Richter divided the speakers into subject areas, from economic impact to social impacts and adult arcades. Each speaker was given a two-minute limit.
Ken McAvoy, senior vice president of Reed Exhibitions of Norwalk, Conn., came prepared to testify about the impact of operating destination resort casinos in South Florida on Orlando’s convention trade. But he ran out of time.
Sen. Jack Latvala, R-St. Petersburg, offered an assist. He asked what impact destination resort casinos would have on Central Florida’s theme parks.