Miami-Dade County

Lawmakers agree to give Miami-Dade one new casino but deal isn’t final yet

A patron plays a slot machine at the Magic City Casino in Miami.
A patron plays a slot machine at the Magic City Casino in Miami. AP

After years of impasse over how to update Florida’s gambling laws to reflect changing times, the House agreed to a series of major concessions Wednesday, including bringing a new casino to Miami-Dade County, but the measure was immediately met with resistance from gambling opponents.

Under the offer made on the second day of formal negotiations over gambling legislation aimed at renewing the state’s compact with the Seminole Tribe, the House proposal ends the mandate that horse and dog tracks conduct live racing and a willingness to give the tribe the ability to offer craps and roulette.

“We know that time is running out, so we wanted to make a substantial offer to the Senate,” said Rep. Jose Felix Diaz, R-Miami, the House’s chief negotiator.

Sen. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, said the proposal “was a substantial offer that tells me that you came in here ready to get the ball moving down the field.”

Although details of the proposal remain sketchy, a new gaming facility in Miami-Dade would be authorized under certain conditions. The casino must be located at least 5 miles from any existing pari-mutuel facility, must be chosen by competitive bidding, is authorized to have 1,500 slot machines and a card room with designated-player games, and is required to purchase and surrender to the state at least one pari-mutuel permit.

Malaysian company Genting has said it wants to build a casino resort on Biscayne Bay at the former site of the Miami Herald building, and the Fontainebleau Hotel in Miami Beach is also likely to compete for the slots license.

The House would permit the Seminole Tribe to add craps and roulette at all seven of its casinos and allow greyhound tracks and Calder Race Course — now operating its horse races as Gulfstream Park West — to end live racing, with voter approval.

The offer brought the two chambers significantly closer after each passed dramatically different legislation aimed at renewing the compact with the Seminoles.

But it also drew reaction and opposition from Armando Codina, one of Miami’s most prominent developers, who argued that while the revenue will help the state, it will cost the county, and leave the community with infrastructure and social problems.

“I’m well-informed, but this surprised me how it was snuck in without any public debate,” said Codina, chairman of Codina Partners, LLC, a real estate investment and development firm based in Coral Gables, in an interview with the Herald/Times.

“These guys are going to send casino money to Tallahassee and leave us with all the infrastructure issues and all the social issues that come with it,” said Codina, who has long been a critic of expanded gambling in the county.

“They are voting for something without any understanding of the impact and without any idea of where the money is going to go. It’s a crime being perpetrated on the city of Miami.”

He said he has built corporate headquarters for IBM, Office Depot, Ryder Trucks, and Baccardi and “no headquarters wants to be in a place with all the social issues gambling brings.”

“What’s happening on the Beach and what’s happened on Brickell, speaks for itself,” he said. “For these legislators to talk about casino gaming without telling the public where this is going to go, is irresponsible.”

Codina, who once was a business partner with former Gov. Jeb Bush and has been a prolific Republican fundraiser, warned that the decision could have political ramifications.

“If the governor is going to run for the [U.S.] Senate, he has to think through this,” Codina said. “The message for the governor is this is going to be put on his lap and his legacy is going to be casino gambling.”

He also had a warning for local lawmakers seeking re-election: “Any representative that votes for this without understanding all of the impacts of gaming, and where this money is going to be designated, is derelict.”

The House also agreed to a Senate provision that slot-machine look-alikes used in bars and convenience stores be designated as Class III games that are not allowed in Florida. The House also proposed a lower tax rate on slot machines as long as casinos reduce the number of slot machines they operate and authorized designated-player card games with strict new provisions.

The proposal brings the House farther than it has in years by agreeing to so-called “decoupling” — the requirement that greyhound tracks, harness race tracks, quarterhorse and designated thoroughbred tracks no longer have to conduct live racing as a condition of their gambling permit. Of the three thoroughbred racetracks — Tampa Bay Downs, Gulfstream and Gulstream West/Calder — only Calder wants to stop racing. The proposal does not extend decoupling to jai-alai frontons.

A condition of the decoupling is that a track would have to get local approval to end live racing through a countywide referendum. The House also scales back the Senate decision to authorize two new casinos, one each in Miami-Dade and Broward, by authorizing only one in Miami-Dade.

Several issues remain unresolved, including the fate of the eight counties that have conducted voter referendums approving adding slot machines to their tracks and jai-alai frontons.

The Senate plan offers big help to Tampa Bay Downs by increasing the purse pool for horse racing, but while the House agreed Wednesday to expand the purse pool for thoroughbred racing, it did not offer specifics.

Under the Senate plan, Tampa Bay Downs would be guaranteed $10 million a year from the gaming compact as part of a “purse pool” to offset the fact that it is so close to the Seminole Hard Rock Casino — one of the largest casinos in the world — and does not have slot machines like parimutuels in South Florida.

In addition, the Downs would be eligible to go after a portion of another $10 million aimed at helping to keep thoroughbred racing alive by assuring tracks have live racing.

Sen. Dana Young, R-Tampa, said Tampa Bay Downs will be able to attract more top horses and races with higher purse pools, which in turn can draw more people to a facility that is within 10 miles of the Hard Rock casino. Young said Tampa Bay Downs shouldn’t be put at a competitive disadvantage just because it doesn’t have slot machines like other tracks in Florida would be able to have under the gambling deal legislators are trying to work out.

“There is a realization in the parimutuel industry and gaming industry that this is unfair,” she said.

Sen. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, said the provision is important not just to help Tampa Bay Downs compete, but also to help preserve the thoroughbred horse industry in Florida. Without live racing venues like Tampa Bay Downs, horse breeders in Florida would be impacted.

The House also agreed to a Senate proposal to negotiate with the Tribe a provision that the Legislature would be given two years to cure any alleged violation of the compact. The House proposed that if the state regulates daily fantasy sports, the Tribe can offer it but it would not be considered a violation of the compact.

The conference committee has scheduled a meeting early Thursday for the Senate to make its counter offer.

Izzy Havenick, vice president of Magic City Casino which has lobbied for decoupling for years, was pleased with the development.

“We’ve been asking for eight years to give us a road map so we know what direction to go for our business,” he said. He noted that they have 32 acres in the heart of Little Havana and the options for economic development are great.

“Retail, entertainment, David Beckham is still looking for a stadium — we just want to do something with the property,” he said.

Winn Peeples, lobbyist for the Brunetti family which owns Hialeah Park Racing and Casino, said the proposal is “progress, but we’ve got a lot to digest.”

John Sowinski, president of No Casinos, criticized the compromise.

“This conference committee process is a prime example why gambling expansion should not be subject to legislative ‘sausage making’ as it results in gambling creep,” he said. “It is clear that there needs to be a bright line in the Florida Constitution that gives Florida voters the exclusive right to authorize gambling in our state.”

Herald/Times reporter Jeremy Wallace contributed to this report.