Destinations

The Fight Over Gambling That Could Change the Face of Florida Tourism

Jan 04, 2014 11:00 am

Skift Take

Some development issues are best decided by local municipalities. But gaming doesn’t fall into this category. It’s an industry that requires bigger thinking and stronger oversight to hedge against corruption and poor planning.

— Jason Clampet

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I-5 Design  / Flickr

Interior of the Seminole Hard Rock Casino. I-5 Design / Flickr


Florida lawmakers will be eyeing a range of gambling changes this spring that could reshape the state’s controversial industry for decades.

Pitted between tourism giants such as Walt Disney Co. and billion-dollar casino companies, legislative leaders want a rewrite of the state’s gambling regulations — from changing the oversight of horse and greyhound racing to authorizing Las Vegas-style destination casinos.

But there’s a catch: If they can’t decide during the spring session what Florida’s betting landscape should look like, voters could wind up doing the job.

House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, and Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, are both pushing a constitutional amendment for the fall general-election ballot requiring that future gambling expansions go before voters statewide.

The idea could mean that voters from Pensacola to Key West would get a say in plans for any Las Vegas-style casinos regardless of where they’re proposed.

“I think we have seen gaming creep. The Legislature has not had its hands on the wheel when it comes the gaming laws of the state of Florida,” Weatherford said.

“The idea I’m warming up to, which I think makes a lot of sense, is to give the power back to the people when it comes to gaming expansion.”

The 60 percent vote required for amending the constitution would be a high bar for gambling interests. The 2004 amendment allowing Miami-Dade and Broward counties to have local referendums on slot machines — before the supermajority requirement was law — garnered just 50.8 percent voter support.

Weatherford says he is undecided on whether to require that any expansion contemplated this year also go to voters statewide, an idea preferred by a cadre of House conservatives, along with Central Florida’s “family friendly” tourism industry led by Disney.

And the Senate could have its own ideas. Gaetz has said voters in his Panhandle district should be given a say on destination resorts.

“You can make an argument that that’s a systemic change that the people of Florida ought to have a say about,” Gaetz said.

But destination resorts are just one of the thorny issues lawmakers may deal with in the spring. Others include:

  • Reforming regulation of existing gaming operations and creating a stronger gaming commission to oversee the industry.
  • Deciding whether to let the state’s pari-mutuel industry expand operations beyond the current economically struggling model in which gamblers bet against each other on races.
  • Setting future tax rates on the industry, particularly for destination casinos if they are allowed to open.
  • Renegotiating a compact with the Seminole Tribe of Florida. The agreement, which expires next year, has generated close to $1.5 billion in state revenue by allowing the tribe to offer high-stakes games such as blackjack.

Most of those issues have percolated in Tallahassee for years, employ the highest-powered lobbyists in Florida and account for some of the biggest checks to campaigns.

Genting, the Malaysian-based development giant planning to build a mega-resort in downtown Miami, last year alone gave nearly $1 million to Florida politicians, most of it to Gov. Rick Scott, the Republican Party of Florida and GOP legislative leaders. Disney, meanwhile, has steered $813,000 so far this election cycle to political campaigns.

The destination-resort fight has pitted Central Florida’s “family friendly” tourism and convention industry forces against companies such as Malaysian-based Genting and Las Vegas Sands, which want to build billion-dollar mega-resort casinos rivaling the biggest in the world.

But the gambling industry itself is divided over how many destination resorts to authorize, or whether to limit them to South Florida.

Genting alone spent $1 million in 2012 on polling and lawyers to craft a constitutional amendment authorizing the casino it wants to build in downtown Miami, but then scrapped the idea to pursue legislative permission instead.

“It’s a saturated market to begin with,” said Las Vegas Sands lobbyist Nick Iarossi, whose billionaire employer, Sheldon Adelson, has lavished millions on Florida politicians in recent years.

“The last thing you want to do is make a $2 billion investment and then have the Legislature authorize three more around you.”

The industry desperately wants to get that blessing from lawmakers in the spring rather than waiting until a future statewide election.

“This is the year to try to get things done,” said Brian Ballard, a lobbyist whose clients include Resorts World Miami LLC, the Genting subsidiary.

“This is the first time since the Lottery was voted on [in 1986] that legislative leaders are looking at a massive rewrite.”

Meanwhile, potential new gaming entrants such as Lee County, where voters have expressed support for adding slot machines at a Naples-area greyhound track, want lawmakers to expand such games beyond just the pari-mutuels in Miami-Dade and Broward counties or the Seminole Tribe’s casinos.

But tourism and convention hubs such as Orange County argue that any expansion contemplated this year should go to voters statewide, where the casino industry could face a costlier campaign to win the 60 percent supermajority.

“There would be a lot of folks upset and feeling disenfranchised if we had an expansion of gaming and they didn’t get a say on it,” said John Sowinski, with the Orlando-based NoCasinos.org group.

“The body politic in Florida expects a statewide referendum on this if there is to be an expansion of gambling.”

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