Miami-Dade poll: Voters want Las Vegas-style casinos

02/19/2014 1:02 PM

02/19/2014 9:30 PM

About 56 percent of likely Miami-Dade County voters want Las Vegas-style “destination resorts” casinos, according to a new poll that shows solid support across party lines.

Hispanics back the concept the most: 60 percent said they would favor a proposed state constitutional amendment to allow up to three of the proposed casino resorts in South Florida.

The survey was paid for by unnamed gaming interests. The industry has released similar polls with similar results in prior years, only to see their efforts to expand gambling go bust in the Florida Legislature.

This year, however, might be different now that state House Republicans — once a bastion of opposition to expanded gambling — have shown more of a willingness to talk about the issue.

“The story here is that there's a strong level of enthusiasm among Hispanics, among Cuban Americans and even among Republicans in Miami-Dade for high-end resorts like this,” said Tom Eldon, who conducted the survey of 400 of the county’s likely voters. The survey has an error margin of 4.9 percentage points.

Even if a proposed constitutional amendment made the ballot — one has been discussed but not drafted — support doesn’t appear strong enough to pass it statewide. It takes 60 percent of the vote to enact a constitutional amendment.

Eldon’s poll showed that a medical marijuana initiative, which will be on the November ballot, garners enough support — 64 percent in Miami-Dade — but that the gaming initiative falls just short of the supermajority threshold.

Under Florida law, gambling is limited to seven Indian casinos that offer Las Vegas-style gaming — except for craps and roulette. Thirty-one pari-mutuel facilities also offer some types of gambling.

Eldon’s poll asked respondents whether they would favor an amendment that “allowed for the construction of three or less destination resort casinos limited to South Florida counties like Broward or Miami-Dade.”

The language of the poll indicates that gaming interests — led by Las Vegas Sands Resorts and Kuala Lumpur-based Genting — would sell the initiative as a way to halt the spread of gambling while allowing for just a little more of it in communities that want it.

Assuming the amendment passed, local county voters would then probably have a say in a referendum over the addition of the casino resorts.

The Miami-Dade poll results indicates the measure would pass as a straight-up referendum question, with 56 percent in favor and 37 percent opposed. Support was lowest among Republicans, 54-37 percent, and strongest among Democrats (57-36 percent) and other-party/independent voters (57-37 percent).

Black voters showed the least enthusiasm (52-43), followed by non-Hispanic whites (53-37). Hispanic support (60-33 percent) was buoyed by those of Cuban descent, who backed the measure 63-29 percent.

Walt Disney Co. and the Florida Chamber of Commerce oppose the advent of Vegas-style resorts in Florida, saying more gambling weakens the state’s family-first reputation. Native American Indian tribes also don’t want more competition.

If Las Vegas-style resorts are authorized in the state, the Seminole Tribe of Florida would have the right not to pay Florida upward of $250 million annually under its compact with the state.

Eldon’s poll asked respondents whether the Seminoles’ opposition — designed to keep “their highly profitable monopoly on casino gaming in Florida — would make people more or less likely to support a gaming amendment.”

The question made little difference; 36 percent said they would be more likely to favor the proposed amendment, but another 36 percent said it made no difference and 21 percent said they would be less likely to back the proposal.

Asked about the effect of Disney’s opposition on their vote, 31 percent said it would make them more likely to approve the amendment, 43 percent said it made no difference and 22 percent said Disney’s opposition would make them less likely to vote for the amendment.

The most-effective message: Jobs.

About 55 percent said they would be more likely to support the measure if the “three new casinos would be located only in Southeast Florida and would create thousands of new jobs while generating hundreds of millions of dollars in tax revenue to the state by attracting tourists from all over the world.”

Only 19 percent said it would make no difference and 22 percent said the jobs message would make them less likely to support the measure.

Voters were also asked which message was closer to their thinking: 1) that the casinos would create “thousands of jobs . . . and help improve South Florida’s economy” or 2) that Florida has enough gambling and any more “would hurt our society and economy.”

Fifty-seven percent sided with the jobs message; 37 percent favored the second message.

When asked about the intensity of their support, 68 percent said they particularly liked the idea of a Florida State Gaming Commission to oversee and police the industry. Asked whether future Las Vegas-style casino facilities should be approved only by a statewide vote, 66 percent said they supported or strongly supported the concept.

About 65 percent said they supported or strongly supported allowing the proposed casinos in Broward and Miami-Dade if they included “hotels, shopping, celebrity chef restaurants, and headliner shows and convention facilities.”

And 59 percent said they favored full Vegas-style gaming operations, including slot machines, at existing jai-alai facilities and horse and dog tracks.

After being asked the battery of questions, voters were relatively unmoved, and backed the proposed constitutional amendment by the same margin, 19 percentage points.

The poll did indicate voting for the gambling could be a plus for lawmakers, with 39 percent saying a legislator’s support made them more likely to favor the politician; 27 percent said it made their support less likely and 20 percent said it made no difference.

Despite the rosy numbers, though, gambling opponents and supporters know that different polls asked in different ways yield different results.

Meantime, the industry’s biggest enemy is sometimes itself in the Florida Legislature. All the special interests line up to get a piece of the action, and often make gambling legislation die of its own weight.

“Gambling legislation announcements quickly lead to circular firing squads,” said John Sowinski, leader of the Orlando-based No Casinos group.

“But we have to remain vigilant,” he said, “because anything is possible and the other side will spare no expense to try and have their way.”

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