Genting abandons gambling petition drive

In a major shift in strategy, the Genting Group, the Malaysian-based casino giant, told legislative leaders this week that it will stop a petition drive to get a casino amendment on the 2014 ballot, leaving it to lawmakers to decide the future of gambling in Florida.

“We are not going forward with a petition drive effort and there have not been any petitions gathered,’’ said Brian Ballard, a lobbyist for Genting, after meeting with House Speaker Will Weatherford and Senate President Don Gaetz. “The approach the Legislature is taking with this — a thoughtful analysis — we think makes absolute sense and we want to be a constructive player in it.”

Genting, which bought the Miami Herald site in 2011 to build a destination resort and casino complex, led a failed effort earlier this year to bring Las Vegas-style casinos to Florida. The measure never made it out of a House committee and was loaded down with provisions in the Senate before it was declared dead.

After that effort failed, Genting shifted gears and created a political committee — New Jobs and Revenue For Florida — to begin a petition-gathering campaign to circumvent lawmakers and bring the issue before voters in 2014. The company spent more than $905,000 in the last six months on voter petition consultants, constitutional scholars and pollsters and was on the verge of launching the campaign when it shifted course last month.

With Weatherford and Gaetz representing new leadership in the Republican-majority Legislature, Genting is taking a less aggressive strategy in Tallahassee.

Weatherford and Gaetz plan to put gaming regulation on center stage in the next two years, spending the 2013 session examining options and waiting until 2014 to pass substantial legislation. Their plans also include renegotiating — a year earlier than scheduled — the revenue-sharing compact with the Seminole Tribe, which now brings the state $233 million a year.

“We currently have a lot of gambling in the state of Florida, but we have to take a very holistic view,” said Weatherford, a Wesley Chapel Republican, earlier this year. “There needs to be clarity and direction as to where the state is going,” he added, and the tribal compact will “very likely” be part of that.

Gaetz, R-Niceville, created a Gaming Committee intended to deal with the issue exclusively for the first time in recent legislative history. He named Sen. Garrett Richter, R-Naples, to be the committee’s chairman. Weatherford is also considering creating a special committee to exclusively deal with the issue.

The Senate will “take a thoughtful, deliberative view of this and do an economic analysis,’’ Gaetz said in an interview. “There’s no pre-determined landing zone.”

Nick Iarossi, lobbyist for Las Vegas Sands, another casino company that has been behind the push for resort casinos, said he expects legislators to review every area of gambling in Florida — from resort casino, pari-mutuels, unregulated Internet cafes and Internet poker to tax rates and the kinds of games that are offered.

“I don’t think anything is safe,’’ Iarossi said. “Everything is on the table.”

A pivotal player in the debate will be the Broward-based Seminole Tribe, owner of the Hard Rock Casinos in Hollywood and Tampa, and five other casinos in Florida. Its agreement with the state gives the Seminoles the exclusive right to offer blackjack and other table games in Miami-Dade and Broward counties through 2015 in exchange for annual payments to state and local governments. Legislators imposed the expiration date when they ratified the compact in 2010 to give the state time to take a comprehensive look at Florida’s gambling laws.

Genting said Thursday that regardless of whether Florida approves casinos it continues to move forward with plans to build a resort complex that includes residential, retail and hotels on land now occupied by the Miami Herald Building near downtown Miami. The company paid Herald parent McClatchy Co. $236 million for the 13.9-acre site in 2011.

Development plans, however, are contingent on whether Miami’s historic preservation board votes to designate the 50-year-old Herald’s building an historic site. The issue, spearheaded by the Dade Heritage Trust, comes up for a final vote on Monday.