Highly anticipated 'destination resorts' bill filed

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Lilly Rockwell of the News Service of Florida reports that the long-awaited destination resorts bill, permitting massive luxury casinos in South Florida, was filed Wednesday, accelerating an intense lobbying war that will dominate the legislative session when it begins in January.

The 142-page bill (HB 487) allows the state to issue up to three resort casino permits in Broward and Miami-Dade counties only and sets up a new state regulatory agency to oversee gambling headed by a seven-member commission whose members are recommended by the Legislature.

Modeled after similar regulatory agencies in New Jersey and Nevada, the proposed Department of Gaming Control would strictly regulate gambling in the state, from the pari-mutuel race track facilities, to Internet cafes that offer sweepstakes games and the newly allowed destination resorts.

Bill sponsors say the regulatory commission will help ensure the state is supporting the type of gambling that will bring in the most in additional state revenue and jobs.

But it also is written to favor destination resort operators by giving them a tax rate of 10 percent versus the 35 percent that the eight pari-mutuel facilities that operate slot machines pay in those same counties.

Proponents of the bill include casino operators such as Genting Malaysia and Las Vegas Sands, who have advised bill sponsors Sen. Ellyn Bogdanoff, R-Fort Lauderdale, and Rep. Erik Fresen, R-Miami, in what they would like to see in the proposal. Both casino operators argue these large-scale combination convention centers, hotels, restaurants and casinos will bring much-needed jobs and tax revenue to the state.

Lobbyist Nick Iarossi, who represents Las Vegas Sands, said the company is largely happy with the bill, but disagrees with allowing up to three destination resort permits in South Florida instead of just one or two.

“We are happy that a bill has been filed and we can start the debate on destination resorts,” Iarossi said. “We think it’s a good start and we expect the bill to change over time as it goes through the committee process.”

The casino companies face a tough battle over the next four months against powerful opponents, including several big business lobbies, competitors to casinos, such as the pari-mutuel race track facilities and the Seminole Indian Tribe, as well as groups that object to gambling expansions on moral grounds.

Donn Mitchell, the chief administrative officer for Missouri-based Isle of Capri Casinos, which operates Pompano Park, a dog track in Broward County that also has slots and poker tables, objected to the decision to give destination resort owners a 10 percent tax rate, much lower than the 35 percent tax rate Isle pays on the Pompano facility.

“All we have ever asked for is to give us the same playing field that everyone else has,” Mitchell said.

By allowing these large-scale casino facilities it could jeopardize the state’s compact with the Seminole tribe, which guarantees $1 billion in payments to the state over five years in exchange for the exclusive right to offer certain card games.

If it were to violate that compact, the state would lose the guaranteed revenue. Mitchell said this also places pari-mutuel facilities at risk because they will be paying a large tax rate while the tribe casinos pay nothing. This means the tribe can afford to bolster marketing campaigns, crippling the competing pari-mutuels.

“If we aren

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.