Seminoles and pari-mutuels say they'll fight plan
Two state senators announced Friday that they have filed legislation that would allow five Las Vegas-style casino hotels in Florida, spaced across the state.
Dennis Jones, R-Seminole, and Maria Sachs, D-Delray Beach, announced the news via a release Friday. Jones is chair and Sachs is vice chair of the Senate Regulated Industries Committee, which gambling falls under.
The legislation would authorize what Jones calls one "destination resort" in each of five districts across the state. Broward and Miami-Dade counties comprise one district. Palm Beach County is part of another, along four counties that neighbor it. The casinos would require approval by local referendum, and the Seminole Tribe of Florida and the state's pari-mutuels say they're going to fight it.
Jones said the casinos would help the state's economy. They would have to contain at least 500,000 square feet for meetings and conventions, have at least 1,000 hotel rooms and commit no more than 10 percent of their square footage for gambling. The Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino, for example, has 500 rooms.
Jones said estimates show the casinos could draw 5 million out-of-state visitors, and stop 3.5 million trips by Floridians to go gamble elsewhere — while also attracting big trade shows.
"Right now we're not a major player in the trade show industry," Jones said. "And if the Legislature thinks this bill is worthy, they'll help move it along.
"I just believe in it."
Outside of South Florida, only four casinos exist — all operated on sovereign land by the Seminole Tribe of Florida. The state and the Seminole Tribe of Florida reached a five year agreement in 2010 allowing blackjack and other table games, but not roulette or craps, at certain tribal casinos.
That agreement, which pays the state about $1 billion over five years, was based on "exclusivity," meaning the Seminoles paid for the right to be the only game in town. Destination casinos would clearly void the exclusivity portion, meaning their payments would be reduced or even eliminated.
"If the Legislature wants to allow in new entities, it will have to decide if it's a good tradeoff," tribe spokesman Gary Bitner said. "Are they going to make enough to make up the assured payments from the tribe?"
$50 million per license
Jones wants the state to pick the five resorts through a bidding process. He said he's been approached by eight already, many of whom have lobbyists in Tallahassee already. Suitors would pay a $50 million refundable licensing fee and a $1 million non-refundable application fee, and 95 percent of that money would go into the state's general fund. The rest would be split between the agency that would market the program and a state education fund.
The legislation also would create a seven-member commission to regulate all casino gambling. Florida's governor would appoint the committee members and the Senate would approve it.
Until now, gambling in Florida has grown piecemeal. The state approved the Florida Lottery in 1986, then low-limit poker at pari-mutuels in 1997.
In 2004 Broward County voters approved slots, with three pari-mutuels eventually offering slot machines and Miami-Dade county also adding slots. Uncapped poker, where players can buy in for as much as they want, became legal in Florida in 2010.
But getting the state, and then the public, to take the leap to full casinos could be a tough sell.
Dick Batchelor, a Democrat from Orlando who served in the Florida House of Representatives for eight years, said he and others feel such an expansion could hurt the state.
"We all know it's about money, but rather than do the right thing and set better priorities; they're going to the vice industry, and I'm a pretty liberal guy," he said. "The bottom line is, 'Is it good for Florida?' and I would suggest it's not at all good.
"You give up so much of the reputation you've built up, which I don't think can be replaced with the money you make."
Horse tracks, dog tracks opposed
Florida horse tracks, dog tracks and jai-alai frontons currently have poker and South Florida pari-mutuels, but have been rebuffed in asking the state to allow them to have blackjack to match the Seminoles.
Last year, the South Florida slot machines netted more than $140 million in state revenue; poker accounted for about $12 million.
No pari-mutuel official could immediately be reached but Mardi Gras Casino owner Daniel Adkins has spoken out against the destination hotel concept in the past. He declined to comment Friday.
John Lockwood of Gunster law firm, who represents a number of pari-mutuel facilities in Florida said: "The recently released casino gaming legislation unfortunately ignores the long-standing pari-mutuel industry which has been a part of Florida's history for many decades, employed generations of Floridians, and paid hundreds of millions in tax dollars.
"The ultimate result of this legislation will be a net loss due to the decimation of the pari-mutuel industry and lost revenue from the Seminole compact," he said.
For the bill to be passed, it would have to clear the Senate Regulated Industries Committee and eventually theFlorida Legislature and the governor. County voters would be able to approve or reject the specific proposed casino.
Where Scott stands on the proposal is unclear. Scott met with Las Vegas interests in January, but after news of his meeting surfaced, Scott said he was not committed to bringing in destination casinos to Florida. His office declined to comment Friday.
The Senate committee's next meeting is Wednesday, but discussion of the bill is not on the agenda.