Casino resort bill clears Senate committee

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With lobbyists jamming the room and lawmakers making last-minute changes, a Senate committee Monday approved a controversial bill that would allow up to three resort casinos in Florida, reports Jim Saunders of the News Service of Florida.

The bill (SB 710) also would allow slot machines at pari-mutuel facilities throughout the state — subject to voter approval — and would regulate strip-mall Internet cafes. A limited number of pari-mutuel facilities might end up being able to offer casino-style games such as craps, black jack and baccarat.

The Regulated Industries Committee approved the bill in a 7-3 vote, but supporters face a massive political challenge in getting it through the full Senate and House. While backers argue the proposal would help create jobs and regulate a sprawling gambling industry, opponents say it jeopardizes Florida’s “family friendly” image.

“Now, I think people are going to wake up tomorrow and realize the threat is real,” said Mark Wilson, president of the Florida Chamber of Commerce, which is a major opponent of the bill.

But bill sponsor Sen. Ellyn Bogdanoff, R-Fort Lauderdale, said approval of “destination” resort casinos or the addition of slot machines or other games at pari-mutuel facilities would be subject to county referendums. Also, she and Sen. Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, R-Miami, disputed that Florida would lose its image of beaches and theme parks and become like Las Vegas or Atlantic City.

“We will never lose the DNA that Florida has in terms of its reputation,” Bogdanoff said.

Supporting the bill were Bogdanoff; Diaz de la Portilla; Committee Chairman Dennis Jones, R-Seminole; Sen. Oscar Braynon, D-Miami Gardens; Sen. Nan Rich, D-Weston; Sen. Maria Sachs, D-Delray Beach; and Sen. Gary Siplin, D-Orlando.

Opposing it were Sen. Thad Altman, R-Melbourne; Sen. Charlie Dean, R-Inverness; and Sen. John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine.

The bill would allow up to three resort casinos that would be part of mixed-use developments, which would include such amenities as restaurants, shopping and convention facilities. To win approval, casino companies would have to agree to spend $2 billion on building and equipping the facilities.

When initially released last year, the bill was touted as allowing resort casinos in Miami-Dade and Broward counties. But the bill would not limit the facilities to only those counties.

Committee members continued making changes Monday to make the proposal more acceptable to the politically influential pari-mutuel industry, which has argued that it should be treated similarly to the resort casinos.

As an example, an amendment set a 10 percent tax rate on slot-machine revenues at pari-mutuel facilities if resort casinos start operating. That would match the tax rate for the resort casinos and would be significantly below the 35 percent rate on slot machines at pari-mutuels in Miami-Dade and Broward — the only counties where slots are currently allowed.

As another example, if resort casinos get voter approval and are authorized to operate in Miami-Dade and Broward counties, pari-mutuels in those areas would be entitled to offer the same games as the resort casinos.

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Peter Schorsch is the President of Extensive Enterprises and is the publisher of some of Florida’s most influential new media websites, including SaintPetersBlog.com, FloridaPolitics.com, ContextFlorida.com, and Sunburn, the morning read of what’s hot in Florida politics. SaintPetersBlog has for three years running been ranked by the Washington Post as the best state-based blog in Florida. In addition to his publishing efforts, Peter is a political consultant to several of the state’s largest governmental affairs and public relations firms. Peter lives in St. Petersburg with his wife, Michelle, and their daughter, Ella.