TALLAHASSEE (CBSMiami/NSF) – Clearing the first legislative hurdle, a Senate committee Monday approved a controversial bill that would allow up to three resort casinos in 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, blackjack and baccarat.
According to The News Service of Florida, 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.
The gambling bill likely will be one of the most heavily lobbied issues of the 2012 session, which starts Tuesday. That was evident during the committee meeting, as lobbyists filled the seats and lined the walls of a room in the Senate Office Building, with some showing up long before the meeting started.
Also, Wilson said the Chamber of Commerce will start running television ads to try to build opposition to the bill. Associated Industries of Florida, a business group that is a major backer of the bill, has already run ads in support of it.
Representatives of the pari-mutuel industry and major casino companies did not speak during the meeting, though a Las Vegas Sands lobbyist indicated support. The measure received a mixed reaction from other speakers, who included representatives of business, religious and law-enforcement groups.
Bogdanoff has long argued that a key part of the bill is to create better regulation of the gambling industry. One of the amendments Monday would block the state from approving new pari-mutuel facilities, while the bill also would regulate and stop the spread of Internet cafes.
The Internet café industry says its electronic games comply with sweepstakes laws, but critics say they are a fast-growing form of gambling. Bogdanoff said she would prefer to shut down the cafes but doesn’t think she has the political support for that.
“What we have, we have,” she said. “We don’t need any more strip-mall casinos.”
But those steps did not take care of the concerns of opponents such as Thrasher, who is chairman of the Rules Committee, which is eventually slated to take up the bill. He said the proposal is the largest expansion of gambling he has seen in the country.
“I think we’re reaching way too far,” Dean said.
(TM and © Copyright 2012 CBS Radio Inc. and its relevant subsidiaries. CBS RADIO and EYE Logo TM and Copyright 2010 CBS Broadcasting Inc. Used under license. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The News Service of Florida contributed to this report.)