Taxes at center of casino debate

A lobbyist for an international casino operator that wants to expand into Florida called Monday for the state to create a strong gaming commission that would oversee all gambling — including one destination resort casino in South Florida.

However, Nick Iarossi, the lobbyist for Las Vegas Sands Corps., told members of the Senate Gaming Committee that proposed sales tax rates suggested in a new study on the future of gaming in Florida could hinder the construction of such a world-class complex.

"The higher the tax the less you can spend on the facility," Iarossi said. "The less you spend on the facility the less iconic the structure is and the less people want to jump on an airplane or drive a long distance in a car to come see it."

Iarossi’s comments came as the committee held its third public input session on the nearly $400,000 Spectrum Gaming Group study, which was commissioned by the Legislature to look at the potential future of gambling in Florida.

Committee Chairman Garrett Richter, R-Naples, said after the meeting he hasn’t made up his mind where to direct the committee regarding the study, particularly when asked about the creation of a state gaming commission. But he agreed that there is a correlation between tax dollars and capital investment.

"I think this committee would do its work well if we were to come out and craft some type of policy that incentivized or motivated economic growth in the state of Florida," Richter said. "Whether that’s economic growth under the current scenario or some different scenario remains to be seen, but I think a lower tax rate would likely motivate a greater capital injection."

The Spectrum study looked at sales-tax numbers between 27 percent, the national median gaming tax rate, and 35 percent, the rate on slot machines at Miami-Dade and Broward pari-mutuels, as it estimated a massive expansion of gambling throughout Florida could boost state coffers by $1 billion a year.

Iarossi suggested the tax needs to be around 10 percent, closer to the rates in Las Vegas and Atlantic City.

Still, the odds could be long for legislation that would allow a destination resort casino, which Iarossi said should be located in Miami-Dade or Broward counties.

The location, he said, would avoid convention competition for gaming opponents in Central Florida that include Disney World.

During the 2012 session, lawmakers considered allowing up to three multibillion-dollar resort casinos, but the idea died.

Committee Vice Chairwoman Maria Sachs, D-Delray Beach, expressed concerns about the impact of a large casino, with a corresponding convention center, upon smaller businesses, which has been one of the complaints against allowing casinos.

"I think everyone has been to the Jersey area of Atlantic City or Las Vegas, I don’t see many small, ma and pa pasta stores close by the Bellagio or the Venetian," Sachs said.

Meanwhile, Sen. Gwen Margolis, D-Miami, called it "inconceivable" that anyone would suggest anything higher than a 10 percent tax rate on gaming would reduce visitors to South Florida.

"Guess what, you get $250 a room in any decent hotel on Miami Beach now, it’s totally booked all the time. The good rooms are all booked," Margolis told Iarossi. "We don’t have any problem attracting people, we have enough things for them to do in Miami-Dade County. Don’t come to Miami-Dade County my friend."

Additional public hearings are planned for Nov. 14 in Pensacola and Nov. 15 in Jacksonville.

Richter said that in addition to the 138 speakers at public hearings held in Coconut Creek and Lakeland, the committee has received 24 hand written comments and 340 comments online.

Richter said there are no plans for the committee to visit Nevada or New Jersey to meet with those state’s gaming commissions.