The Florida Senate on Monday unveiled a proposal that would bring casino resorts to Miami-Dade and Broward counties, reduce dog racing and subject the gaming industry to new regulations.
In addition to the resort casinos, greyhound injuries would be reported and voters would be asked to approve of any future gaming in a constitutional amendment.
The Senate proposals, contained in three separate bills, are the product of nearly a year of study and more than $400,000 in taxpayer money spent to review the economic and revenue impact of bringing resort casinos to Florida. But the ideas face steep resistance from House leaders, incoming Senate leader Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando — and even Gov. Rick Scott, who may not want the issue on his plate in an election year.
“I thought this would be a very good starting line to have the discussion,” Sen. Garrett Richter, R-Naples, chairman of the Senate Gaming Committee, told the Herald/Times. “I think the bill is composed of statutes and regulations that have the best interests of Florida in mind.”
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Richter said the sweeping rewrite is an attempt to “reform the current patchwork of laws into an orderly structure.” He said it is a preliminary proposal that will be vetted for weeks when the Legislature begins its two-month session next week.
In addition to licensing two destination resort casinos in South Florida, the bill (SPB 7052) would reduce the number of dog races conducted at the state’s 13 greyhound tracks, and requires that track owners and trainers report dog injuries for the first time since the state legalized dog racing 80 years ago.
All the changes would take effect this year under the plan, but it also proposes a constitutional amendment to require voter approval for any additional gambling expansion. Voters in counties and cities that would host the destination resorts in Miami-Dade and Broward also would have to give their consent.
“It’s Christmas in February for out-of-state gambling interests, and their entire wish list can be found in these bills,” said John Sowinski, president of No Casinos, the Orlando-based gaming opposition group. “This legislation reeks of gambling interest influence. I have yet to find any major provision that isn’t there at the request of somebody in the gambling industry.”
Complicating the proposal is that expansion of gambling in Florida could nullify the state’s $230 million-a-year gaming compact with the Seminole Tribe. The tribe makes monthly payments to the state in return for the exclusive right to offer blackjack and other card games at its casinos in South Florida and slot machines at casinos in other parts of the state.
House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, said he will not accept any gambling expansion unless the governor signs off on it and negotiates a new compact. But while the governor’s staff has met with members of the tribe, they have not met with attorney Barry Richard, who would lead negotiations for the tribe.
Richter said it would be up to the governor to renegotiate the compact if the Senate proposal were approved, but he acknowledged that Scott can control the time frame. He said he couldn’t answer whether the expanded gambling included in the Senate proposal would raise enough revenue to offset losing the $230 million contributed by the tribe.
He acknowledged, however, that absent the governor’s support, the bill could have a difficult time passing — even in the Senate, where support for gambling expansion is stronger than in the House. “You have to have 21 votes,” he said of the 40-member Senate.
Richter’s announcement came three weeks after he initially said the proposal would be ready for review. In the interim, legislators have been meeting in Tallahassee for pre-session meetings during the day and strings of fundraisers at night, collecting checks from all sides of the gambling industry.
Meanwhile, Florida’s business lobbying groups have lined up on both sides of the issue — a reflection of their contribution base. Tom Feeney, who is now head of Associated Industries of Florida and once was a gambling opponent as the House speaker from Orlando, commended the Senate proposal as courageous and called on the House to follow.
AIF’s undisclosed contributors include Las Vegas Sands and Genting, the leading proponents for a casino resort in South Florida.
The Senate proposal “clears away all the smoke, misinformation and untruths and brings a clear focus on the benefits a limited number of integrated resorts will have in South Florida,” Feeney wrote in a statement.
On the opposing side is the Florida Chamber of Commerce, whose largest members include Disney and other Florida entertainment companies that fear competition for their convention business.