'Destination resort' sponsors play defense

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Lilly Rockwell of the News Service of Florida reports: In response to a growing chorus of opposition to the destination resorts casino bill, the lawmakers sponsoring the proposal spent an hour Thursday morning defending it to a roomful of reporters, saying it would better regulate gambling and provide jobs.

“Our goal is not about the expansion of gaming,” said Sen. Ellyn Bogdanoff, R-Ft. Lauderdale, the Senate sponsor. “As a matter of fact, we hope it will reduce gaming in the state.”

But the bill sponsors also acknowledged the 142-page bill would likely be changed in the coming weeks to reflect concerns from the pari-mutuel industry and better crack down on the proliferation of Internet cafes.

The identical bills (HB 487, SB 710) allow for up to three massive luxury casinos in Broward and Miami-Dade counties and also establish a new state agency to regulate gambling that is overseen by a seven-member commission.

This high-interest bill has only been on the table for a week, but has already generated a press conference from faith-based groups opposed to it, a television advertising campaign criticizing it by an Orlando-based group called No Casinos, and the opposition of the powerful Florida Chamber of Commerce and Walt Disney Co.

Two casino operators, Genting Malaysia and Las Vegas Sands, are lobbying heavily for the bill, though other casino operators have also expressed an interest in expanding in Florida.

Rep. Erik Fresen, R-Miami, the House sponsor of the bill, said the proposal is likely to change in the coming weeks. In particular, he said the sponsors are open to hearing the concerns from pari-mutuels, who operate the eight “racinos” in Broward and Miami-Dade counties that offer slots and other casino-style card games.

But the bill gives destination resorts a competitive advantage by awarding them a better tax rate than pari-mutuels. Pari-mutuels pay a 35 percent tax rate, while these casino resorts would pay 10 percent.

Bogdanoff said any appearance that a casino operator is favored is unintentional. “If it does favor or disfavor (a company), we will change the language because that is clearly not the intent,” Bogdanoff said.

Tighter regulation or the elimination of Internet cafes is also on the table for discussion, Fresen said.

“We are confident within the first 24 hours of this bill being in committee or being on its way to a committee the issue of Internet cafes, what to do with them, what not to do with them

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.