Groups rev up to fight gambling expansion in Florida

“Politically powerful South Florida pari-mutuels want the right to build competing destination casinos. The Seminole Tribe says new casinos would nullify its year-old compact that pays the state $200 million a year for exclusive gaming rights outside South Florida. Anti-gambling groups from the past, including Orlando-based No Casinos Inc., are gearing up to fight any gaming expansion in the state.”

Kathleen Haughney

Orlando Sentinel

September 24th

TALLAHASSEE — Battle lines are being drawn over a big-money issue likely to dominate Tallahassee in the coming months: plans to bring Vegas-style casino resorts to Florida.

In the coming weeks, lawmakers are expected to produce legislation that would open the way for companies such as Las Vegas Sands or Genting Malaysia.

They promise to build full-scale resorts that would pump jobs and millions of dollars into a state struggling to pull out of an economic slump.

But in Florida, where gambling has had a long and contentious history, the move to bring in “destination casinos” faces tough sledding.

Politically powerful South Florida pari-mutuels want the right to build competing destination casinos. The Seminole Tribe says new casinos would nullify its year-old compact that pays the state $200 million a year for exclusive gaming rights outside South Florida. Anti-gambling groups from the past, including Orlando-based No Casinos Inc., are gearing up to fight any gaming expansion in the state.
And a court case likely to wind up in the Supreme Court will be the ultimate decider in whether the Legislature can expand gambling in Florida or whether it must go before voters.

Senate President Mike Haridopolos, R-Merritt Island, told reporters last week that the issue would likely come to a vote in the full Senate in early 2012. “Obviously the economic climate has impacted it a bit,” he said.

Haridopolos and other lawmakers, including state Rep. Erik Fresen, R-Miami, who is sponsoring the casino legislation, have voiced support for keeping the destination-resort expansion restricted to Miami-Dade and Broward counties. Lawmakers in the past have been squeamish about a statewide expansion.

South Florida is the prime target for Vegas-based Wynn Resorts and Las Vegas Sands, as well as Genting; all view Miami as an international tourist destination.

Genting has already made a significant investment in Miami, spending more than $300 million to buy bayfront property, including The Miami Herald and the Omni Center. The company has announced plans for a $3 billion resort — but also says it could open a casino with restaurants and bars as soon as fall 2012.

Jessica Hoppe, general counsel for Genting, said the company would move ahead to open a resort in Miami regardless of what the Legislature does. But without the casino, she said, it will take several years. “We think this is a great location,” she said. They will face opposition from many corners.

Pari-mutuel facilities in Miami-Dade and Broward counties that operate slot-machine “racinos” helped bring down the destination-casinos movement last spring by pushing for the same treatment — including a lower tax rate — as the Vegas-style casinos.

Additionally, lawmakers will have to weigh whether the potential for new money outweighs the dollars they currently receive from the Seminole Tribe.

In 2010, the state and the tribe signed a 20-year compact that will pay the state about $1 billion during the first five years. In exchange, the tribe got exclusive rights to operate Vegas-style slot machines outside South Florida, plus the right to operate banked card games such as blackjack and baccarat at five of its seven facilities.

After the first five years, the state and tribe can renegotiate the terms.

Barry Richard, a prominent Tallahassee lawyer representing the tribe, said any plan allowing destination casinos — either statewide or in South Florida — would violate the compact, and the tribe would likely stop paying the state.

“Any casino-gaming expansion other than the slots that were expressly permitted in Miami-Dade and Broward would terminate the payments under the compact altogether and would permit the tribe to engage in that gaming and any gaming that was permitted anywhere else,” he said.

Rounding out opposition to the plan are groups that simply do not want to see more gambling in Florida.
No Casinos Inc., an Orlando-based group that successfully fought a casino initiative on the 1994 ballot, has reactivated itself.

John Sowinski, an Orlando public-relations executive who ran the 1994 campaign, said the group does not have a moral objection to gambling but thinks any economic benefit to the state from expanded gambling isn’t worth it.

“It comes with a ton of social costs,” he said. “You have to regulate it; you’ve got to increase costs for law enforcement; you’ve got treatment for addiction.”

Sowinski, whose group raised about $1.5 million in 1994, said No Casinos Inc. likely will band with other anti-gambling groups to raise awareness about the potential expansion and attempt to lobby lawmakers.

“We’re going to do whatever we can with money we’re able to raise,” he said.

Finally, all sides are waiting for an appellate court ruling on whether lawmakers can unilaterally authorize new gambling or whether it must go through a constitutional-amendment process.

If the courts give the Legislature the go-ahead, the next question is whether Gov. Rick Scott will sign off. Scott has been cagey in response to questions about his position. A recent document obtained by the Orlando Sentinel/Sun-Sentinel outlining some of his legislative priorities lists gaming under a heading of “Outstanding Issues/Questions.”

Scott has said, however, that he doesn’t want to see the state’s budget tied to gambling revenues — and that communities should have a choice in the decision.

“I think we need to make sure that the local communities are supportive before we make decision that are going to be adding things,” Scott said last week. “I think that the local citizens ought to have a vote.”