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State party fundraising modest this spring — but juiced by casino dollars

Wednesday, April 11th, 2012 by John Kennedy

The Florida Republican and Democratic parties’ latest reports show modest fund-raising totals for the opening quarter of this presidential election year — with the state’s high-voltage battle over casino gambling proving a big dollar driver on both sides.

Republicans raised $2.9 million, while Democrats pulled in $1.2 million between Jan. 1-March 31, according to reports filed with the Florida Division of Elections.

For Republicans, it was the lowest quarterly fund-raising total in three years. The Democratic total was closer in line with typical party collections, although Democrats had reported a stunningly low $894,445 late last summer.

Florida Democratic Party spokeswoman Brannon Jordan said the party was confident it was on the right track with voters this election year. She pointed out the Florida GOP had out-raised Democrats $22 million to $6 million last year.

“The Republicans fundraising advantage does not translate into electoral success,” Jordan said. ”Despite the financial disparity last year, Democrats won mayoral races across the state, including the GOP stronghold of Jacksonville and in the heart of the state’s I-4 corridor.

“The bottom line: smart, strategic investments trump fundraising and money can’t buy approval for the GOP’s extreme agenda,” she added.

Republicans counterpunched.

“We will have the resources in 2012 to communicate our message of economic growth and job creation,” said state Republican Party spokesman Brian Hughes.  “At the same time, Democrats will offer more debt and deficits, higher taxes, and policies that punish success rather than encourage it.

“These failed ideas led us to overwhelming wins in 2010 and will be the reason for Republican victories this November,” Hughes said.

Both sides, though, seemed to agree that this spring’s push by Genting Resorts World to win legislative approval for a bayside casino in Miami helped generate dollars.

Republicans collected $307,423 from Universal Orlando Resort and Disney World, resorts which fought the Genting resorts plan. Also echoing the Disney line was the Florida Chamber of Commerce, whose political committees gave $85,000 to the GOP.

The Seminole Tribe gave $125,000 to Republicans last quarter, while the Florida Thoroughbred Breeders Association gave $25,000. Both organizations are wary of the business risk casinos posed.

For its part, Genting gave the GOP $100,000, reports show.

Democrats also benefited from the tug-of-war, which fizzled in early February when House sponsor, Rep. Erik Fresen, R-Miami, ended debate on the bill (HB 489) amid steady opposition.

The Florida Democratic Party’s quarterly fund-raising included $150,000 from Hill Brow LLC, a Genting affiliate based in Miami. Another $5,000 came from the Florida AFL-CIO, some of whose affiliated unions supported the casino push.

But the Florida Chamber gave the opposition some heft with Democrats, weighing-in with $12,500 for the party. Disney gave $10,000 and the Isle of Capri Casino and Racetrack in Pompano Beach gave $10,000.

Genting, a Malaysian casino giant, has spent $250 million buying the Miami Herald site and surrounding real estate in Miami, and had hired 23 lobbyists for last session. Genting initially proposed a $3 billion, 10-million-square-foot resort, with 5,200 rooms at the location, but last month announced a sharply scaled-back proposal, but offered few new details.

Fresen’s bill would have allowed as many as three casinos in Broward and Miami-Dade, if approved by voters in county referendums. But the casino drive was mostly hampered by the increasingly complex politics of gambling in Florida — which is reflected in the cash flowing to the state parties in their latest reports.

South Florida horse- and dog-tracks fear casinos will kill the already flagging industry, while the Seminole Tribe, which reached a lucrative gambling compact with the state only a few years ago, also opposed the entry of a well-heeled casino rival.

In the end, Genting and its lobbyist corps were unable last spring to crack the political Rubik’s Cube. But most expect the measure will be back. Genting is heavily invested, having poured almost $630,000 into Florida campaigns last year, with $385,000 going to the state Republican Party.

 

Haridopolos on gaming: House ‘led folks on,’ Internet café reg in doubt

Wednesday, February 8th, 2012 by Dara Kam

It’s highly unlikely that Senate President Mike Haridopolos will get the up-or-down floor vote he wanted on a sweeping gambling bill that included three high-end casinos since the House effectively killed the bill last week.

Without naming names, Haridopolos accused GOP leaders across the rotunda of playing games with the way they handled the “destination resorts” bill that sponsor Erik Fresen, R-Miami, asked to be put aside Friday because he knew it would not get voted out of its first committee.

“Given all the signals they were sending, what committees they sent it to, it was pretty obvious that they led some folks on and they weren’t really going to vote on it,” Haridopolos, R-Merritt Island, told reporters this afternoon. “We saw that coming about a week ago.”

When asked if he was disappointed that the bill appears to be done for before the mid-point in the 60-day legislative session, Haridopolos reiterated that he wanted it to get a floor vote.

“Clearly with the decision made in the House, we’re not going to have that opportunity. But that’s why we have two chambers. I’m not offended by it. I think we all saw it coming. They chose to act quickly and just kill it from discussion. That’s their prerogative,” he said.

But Haridopolos stopped short of sticking a fork in the destination resorts bill, saying the Senate’s version would continue to move through committees even though it appears to be going nowhere in the House.

“It’s a 60-day session. We’ll have to see what happens,” he said.

And a legal opinion from the Seminole Tribe’s attorneys puts in doubt the future of another gambling issue dividing the two chambers – Internet cafés.

The House is moving forward with a proposal to ban the “casinos on the corner” now operating under Florida sweepstakes laws. But the Senate appears to favor a measure that regulate the cafés.

That would violate an agreement the state struck with the Seminoles, the tribe’s attorneys wrote in an opinion, and could put at risk the $233 million a year the Indians give the state for “exclusivity” in certain types of gambling.

Haridopolos called that a “new wrinkle” in the Internet café debate and said the Senate’s lawyers were looking into the issue.

“Clearly the House and the Senate are not on the same page…A majority of senators would agree with regulating as opposed to banning those facilities,” he said.

Comparison of House and Senate gambling bills

Thursday, February 2nd, 2012 by Dara Kam

The House released its version of a gambling proposal, slated for its first committee vote tomorrow, that opens the door casinos in what could be a permanent game-changer for Sunshine State tourism.

While both the House and Senate plans would allow up to three high-end “destination resorts” to open, the House proposal would limit them to Broward and Miami-Dade counties, where slot machines outside of Indian casinos are already up-and-running thanks to voter approval.

The two plans (HB 487, SB 710) include differences about who could give the casino licenses, who would oversee a new gambling agency and the future of Internet cafés.

- Internet cafés: HB 487 would ban them altogether. SB 710 would regulate them, charge operators $100 per terminal and allow local government to prohibit them.
- Games: SB 710 would allow pari-mutuels in the counties where destination resorts open to offer the same games that the casinos have, meaning dog and horse tracks and jai-alai frontons near the casinos could have blackjack, roulette or craps.
- Voter approval: Both bills would require voters to approve the destination resorts by referendum. But the House version would only allow the casinos to be licensed in Broward or Miami-Dade counties.
- Oversight: HB 487 would give the governor and the Florida Cabinet oversight of a new agency – the Department of Gaming Control. The governor and Cabinet would also choose which casino operators would get resort licenses. SB 710 would create a statewide gambling commission that would oversee the Department of Gaming. The commission would pick the casino vendors.
- Taxes: Both set a 10 percent tax rate for game revenues at the destination resorts and would lower the tax rate on slot machines at pari-mutuels (now 35 percent) in counties where a destination resort opens to 10 percent.

After two workshops, the House Business and Consumer Affairs Committee will vote on the bill tomorrow morning. The Senate Regulated Industries Committee approved Sen. Ellyn Bogdanoff’s version weeks ago but faces an uphill battle at its next stop in opponent John Thrasher’s Rules Committee.

Internet café stand-off: Senate committee passes regulation, House and Scott want shut-down

Thursday, January 19th, 2012 by Dara Kam

An Internet café showdown is shaping up after a Senate committee overwhelmingly approved a measure that would regulate the “casinos-on-corner” shortly before the sponsor of a proposal that would shut them down withdrew his bill from consideration.

The Senate Regulated Industries Committee signed off on the regulation of the cafés (SB 380) after hearing from proponents who said the facilities provide up to 13,000 jobs and are a place for seniors to socialize.

“We have never had one, eensy-teensy, bit of crime,” said Julie Slattery, who owns two Internet cafés in Melbourne.

“This is a business. It’s a real business. It’s a form of entertainment,” Slattery said. She asked the committee to regulate rather than shut the locales to “get rid of whatever it is you’re afraid of.”

But prosecutors and the Florida Sheriffs’ Association objected that the cafés are a venue for crimes and illegal gambling and need to be shuttered.

Sen. Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, the bill’s sponsor, rejected those arguments, noting that prosecutions have not resulted in a single conviction.

“I guess there’s a shortage of real crime out there so there’s a need to create some more so you can go prosecute it,” Diaz de la Portilla, R-Miami, said, adding that traffic problems and robberies often take place at convenience stores.

“Should the next bill ban convenience stores, too?” he said.

After passing the regulatory measure by an 8-1 vote, the committee then took up a bill (SB 428) that would outlaw the facilities. That proposal is similar to one passed by a House committee earlier this week and mirrors the criminalization Gov. Rick Scott yesterday said he’d like lawmakers to impose.

But before the committee could vote on his bill, Sen. Steve Oelrich asked the committee to temporarily put it aside, fending off the panel possibly killing the measure. That would have put an end to the possibility of outlawing the cafés for the rest of the session.

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Casino bill still stalled in House

Wednesday, January 11th, 2012 by Dara Kam

The gambling bill that would allow three casinos to open in Florida remains stalled in the House after a second workshop on the proposal Wednesday afternoon.

And it remains unclear whether the controversial proposal will even get a vote in the House Business and Consumer Affairs Committee.

House Business and Consumer Affairs Committee Chairman Doug Holder said he’s still in the information-gathering stage and is not sure whether the bill (HB 487) will even get a vote in his committee or what the next move is.

“That could entail another workshop. It could entail ending the discussion. It could entail a vote. It just depends on how comfortable we feel. Certainly at this point we’ll digest all the information we just received,” committee chairman Doug Holder, R-Sarasota, said after about an hour of testimony late Wednesday afternoon.

The committee heard from proponents of the measure, including casino operators eager to set up shop in Florida, and split business industry lobbyists who spoke both for and against it.

A Senate committee gave Sen. Ellyn Bogdanoff’s version (SB 710) its first thumbs-up on Monday. Senate President Mike Haridopolos, R-Merritt Island, had fast-tracked the bill and is still insisting that he wants the bill to get a vote by the full chamber.

But the proposition is in limbo. Senate Rules and Calender Committee Chairman John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, opposes the bill and said he wants to wait to see what the House does before he takes it up in his committee.

Holder said his chamber isn’t taking its cues from the Senate.

“We’re going through the process in our way. We realize it’s a little bit slower than the pace of the Senate but we are going to vet this fully before making any final decisions,” Holder said.

GOP leaders – including all three Cabinet members – have lined up with social conservatives, law enforcement officials, the Florida Chamber of Commerce and the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association in opposition.

Associated Industries of Florida, the Florida United Businesses Association and the construction industry are all pushing the casinos, promising that the high-end “destination resorts” will create thousands of new jobs and pump untold millions into the state’s anemic economy.

And the state’s existing pari-mutuels are flexing their considerable muscle with demands for equity in taxes and games as the proposed casinos, creating the possibility of roulette, craps and blackjack far beyond the South Florida area targeted by the bill’s sponsors.

On Wednesday, casino operators tried to dispel fears that the casinos will transform the Sunshine State’s family-friendly image into a Las Vegas or Atlantic City gambling mecca.

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Business lobbies launch dueling gambling ads

Tuesday, January 10th, 2012 by Dara Kam

Split business groups have upped the ante in the fight over a proposed gambling bill that would allow three mega-casinos in Florida.

The competing lobbies launched a pair of dueling television ads lauding and condemning the measure (SB 710), which cleared its first hurdle in the Senate Regulated Industries Committee yesterday.

Associated Industries of Florida, which favors the measure, unleashed an ad featuring pundit Ben Stein touting the casinos as a job creator and economic panacea.

On the other side, the Florida Chamber of Commerce’s “Bad Bet for Florida” condemned the proposal, which its leaders say would harm the state’s existing businesses and chase tourists away.

Lawmakers give casinos bill first thumbs-up

Monday, January 9th, 2012 by Dara Kam

A sweeping gambling bill that would allow up to three casinos in Florida passed its first hurdle late Monday with a 7-3 vote in the Senate Regulated Industries Committee.

The measure (SB 710) would allow voters in any county to sign off on the “destination resorts” and allow pari-mutuels in to have whatever games the casinos offer, including blackjack and baccarat – if state regulators grant a casino permit in the county. And it would bar any new dog or horse tracks or jai-alai frontons from opening anywhere in the state.

Sen. Ellyn Bogdanoff, the bill’s sponsor, acknowledged that the future of her proposal – dealing with everything from a new gambling commission to the casinos to Internet cafes – is anything but certain.

“Yeah, this is a big lift and there’s a lot of stuff in here. Call it what you want. Call it an expansion. Call it a reform. Call it a redirection…My hope is that we would stop the proliferation of gaming through clever lawyering or loopholes,” Bogdanoff, R-Fort Lauderdale, said before the vote.

Senate President Mike Haridopolos appeared to have fast-tracked the bill – it received its first committee vote the day before the legislative session opened – and said he wants an early floor vote on it. But that may not happen, said Sen. John Thrasher, chairman of the Rules and Calendar Committee, the bill’s final stop before it goes to the full chamber. First, it heads to the Senate Budget committee.

But the House has yet to hold a single hearing on its version, Thrasher pointed out.

“They have not had the first peep over there in terms of listening to the arguments about this bill,” Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, said. “I’ve got a feeling that…they’re going to have to show some movement in the House before we take it any further.”

Gambling bill rewrite tweaked. Changes tax rates, keeps Internet cafes alive and stays out of barrel racing brouhaha

Friday, January 6th, 2012 by Dara Kam

Sen. Ellyn Bogdanoff‘s latest rewrite of a sweeping gambling measure includes a few major changes but keeps intact the voter approval required for three casinos anywhere in the state and still would allow for Florida’s existing pari-mutuels to offer Las Vegas-style slot machines, again if voters give the thumbs up.

But Bogdanoff, R-Fort Lauderdale, does make one big change in the 170-page amendment filed late Friday afternoon – instead of completely doing away with the “Internet cafes,” it would regulate them. The so-called “casinos on the corner,” operating now as sweepstakes games, would have to register with the state’s new gambling department (also included in her strike-all amendment), put up a bond and certify that the games comply with laws already on the books. A draft version of the measure released two weeks ago would have outlawed the Internet cafes that critics say prey on the poor. Palm Beach County commissioners voted yesterday to ban new Internet cafes from popping up in unincorporated areas.

The new version of the bill (SB 710) would still allow the state’s existing dog and horse tracks – including Palm Beach Kennel Club – and jai-alai frontons to offer slots if voters approve. But instead of having to spend $100 million to upgrade their facilities in exchange for the slots, the pari-mutuel operators would have to pay a one-time $125 million licensing fee.

The catch-all bill also does away with the tax parity the racinos in Miami-Dade and Broward counties had hoped for. Now, the South Florida pari-mutuels would have an 18 percent tax rate on slots – down from the current 35 percent – but not until the proposed casinos are up and running. The casinos would pay a tax rate of 10 percent.

Unlike Bogdanoff’s recent draft, her latest proposal does nothing about barrel racing, now an authorized racing format at a Panhandle track and under consideration at another. Gov. Rick Scott has asked lawmakers to specifically address barrel racing, saying he does not believe the legislature intended to permit it. Her new measure also would not buy back four pari-mutuel permits but it would bar any new pari-mutuel licenses from being issued after July.

The Senate Regulated Industries Committee is slated to vote on her bill Monday afternoon, the day before the 2012 legislative session officially begins.

Sheriff’s office, Seminoles dispute Bondi casino ‘money laundering’ claim

Thursday, December 15th, 2011 by Dara Kam

The Hillsborough County Sheriff‘s Office says it hasn’t investigated any links between drugsters and money laundering at Tampa’s Hard Rock Hotel & Casino, contradicting a claim made by Attorney General Pam Bondi last week.

“According to Chief Deputy Docobo, one of our detectives had a personal conversation with the Attorney General at a private function regarding money laundering in casinos. However our office has not conducted any investigation involving money laundering at casinos, nor do we have any official information that this type of criminal activity is/has occurred in Hillsborough County,” the sheriff’s office said in a statement.

Bondi joined other anti-gambling forces at a press conference last week to publicly denounce a “destination resorts” proposal that would allow three casinos to open in the state. “Many money laundering cases” related to the casino, owned by the Seminole Tribe of Florida, was one of the reasons Bondi gave for opposing the bill (SB 710).

The Sun Sentinel’s Nick Sortal blogged about the money laundering dispute:

But Bondi says that’s what she was told, and her office issued this statement Wednesday:

“At a charitable event on Nov. 12, I spoke with a deputy from the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office regarding the gambling issue. I was absolutely told that in many of the last drug trafficking cases that they made, the money was laundered at the casino.”

Seminole Tribe Chairman James Billie had a blistering response to Bondi’s accusations in an op-ed slated to run in the tribe’s newspaper later this month.

“As long as I have been Chairman, since way back in 1979, and during the years I was out of office, I have never seen any information, whatsoever, come across my desk about money laundering,” Billie wrote. “In all these years the Seminole Tribe has conducted Gaming, since 1979, no audit has ever found any fraud, theft, embezzlement or large variances of any kind.”

The dispute over money-laundering puts the AG and the tribe at odds even though they’re both on the same side in opposing the bill.

“I am very disappointed to hear one of our top Florida government leaders come forward with such a statement that is so damaging to the reputation of the Seminole Tribe of Florida without checking its accuracy or even contacting us for our comments,” Billie said in his column.

Anti-gambling forces rake in Bondi support

Thursday, December 8th, 2011 by Dara Kam

Count Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi among anti-gambling forces fighting a proposal to allow three casinos in the state.

Bondi will join a noon press conference hosted by “No Casinos” today, her office announced in a press release this morning.

Even without Bondi’s opposition, the “destination resorts” bill sponsored by Sen. Ellyn Bogdanoff and Rep. Erik Fresen is facing an uphill battle.

The Senate Regulated Industries Committee wound up its second workshop on the proposal (SB 710) yesterday, logging nearly six hours of testimony in the two meetings.

Near the end of yesterday’s discussion, committee chairman Dennis Jones, who supports the plan conceptually, expressed frustration.

“It seems like more questions are arising every week that we don’t have answers to,” Jones, R-Seminole, said.

Senate Rules Chairman John Thrasher, whose committee has to sign off on the bill before it heads to the Senate floor, blasted the measure during yesterday’s meeting.

“I think this legislation is a major change in the culture and brand in the state of Florida and frankly I think it expands gambling to the point where I am concerned about it,” Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, said during yesterday’s meeting.

Bogdanoff, R-Fort Lauderdale, insists that her bill allowing the three high-end casinos and creating a statewide gambling commission won’t grow gambling in the state but will enable the state to establish a “strategic vision” for gambling.

But she acknowledged she’s got her work cut out for her. Bogdanoff, whose district includes part of Palm Beach County, compared her goal to overhaul gambling in Florida to former Gov. Jeb Bush‘s education reforms.

“It was a holistic view and everybody bought into it,” she said. “I don’t have a popular governor advocating at that level. I’m just a lowly senator from Palm Beach and Broward County.”

Gov. Rick Scott has not said whether he supports the proposal, but has said he does not want the state to be dependent on taxes generated by the casinos.

State economists to meet again next week on casino proposal

Friday, December 2nd, 2011 by Dara Kam

Just how much money three new casinos might bring to the state remains unclear after state economists spent hours struggling to settle on an amount.

The state Revenue Estimating Conference, made up of economists representing the legislature, Gov. Rick Scott and state agencies, took a second swipe at an estimate on Friday but agreed to meet again next week to try to finalize the numbers.

“I think we’re getting close to getting numbers that we could all agree to and feel comfortable with that we could end up adopting next week,” the legislature’s chief economist Amy Baker told reporters late Friday. “People want to think about a couple parts some more. There’s about 16 different piece of the bill that affect revenues and state revenues in one shape or fashion. There are a lot of moving parts behind those but I think we’re getting very close to a product that we can all agree to.”

Proponents of the “destination resorts” measure, including sponsor Sen. Ellyn Bogdanoff, R-Fort Lauderdale, contend the casinos will bring an economic boom to the cash-strapped state. Her plan (SB 710) requires potential casino operators to spend at least $2 billion to develop and build facilities aimed at attracting high rollers from around the world.

The state economists did agree that the three casinos would bring in at least $350 million over four years in taxes, the bulk of that coming from collections related to construction and equipment. The estimators also debated how much money visitors would spend and how many new tourists the casinos might bring to Florida.

Casino kingpin calls BS – during committee meeting – on gambling critics

Wednesday, November 16th, 2011 by Dara Kam

Colin Au, president of Malaysian-based gambling giant Genting America, made big promises to lawmakers during a Senate Regulated Industries workshop on Sen. Ellyn Bogdanoff’s proposal designed to allow up to three casinos in South Florida.

Three casinos in Miami-Dade County could ring up $1.7 billion a year for the state’s cash-strapped coffers, Au said. The high-end resorts would also create 100,000 jobs in a state where the unemployment rate is hovering near the double-digits, Au pledged. Not just any jobs, either, the Malaysian native announced.

“They are good-paying jobs. They work in air-conditioned facilities. They wear uniforms,” Au stated.

Au’s stats raised a few eyebrows, but not as many as his frank dismissal of critics’ contention that the jobs would be snapped up by out-of-state workers already employed at casinos in Atlantic City or Las Vegas.

“That’s bullsh–, OK?” Au said, drawing gasps from the standing-room-only committee room.

Au’s use of the profanity is nearly unheard of in the staid halls of the Capitol, but elicited no rebuke from chairman Dennis Jones, R-Seminole, as other chairmen have done in similar circumstances.

And neither Au’s second use of the off-color term when he pooh-poohed allegations that his proposed 5,000-room gambling resort in Miami, where his company has already purchased property, would put other hotels and restaurants out of business.

“That’s bullsh– again,” the heavily-accented Au insisted. “It does not take people’s lunch. It creates lunch, dinner plus breakfast for everyone.”

After the meeting, Bogdanoff said Au oversold her proposal, possibly damaging its chances of passing. His use of the blue language may have been a cultural difference, Bogdanoff guessed.

“You can do that privately. We all kind of sometimes use language that’s inappropriate but I don’t do it, (a) in a public forum or (b) in a committee meeting,” Bogdanoff, R-Fort Lauderdale, said. “I just want him to tone the rhetoric down.”

So long Lottery – hello Department of Gambling?

Tuesday, November 15th, 2011 by Dara Kam


Sen. Ellyn Bogdanoff revealed a new wrinkle in her “strategic vision” plan for gambling – she wants to transform the Florida Lottery department into the “Florida Gaming Commission,” something up until now she thought couldn’t be done.

The Lottery, which brings in about $4 billion a year, is an already-existing executive agency which could be morphed into a statewide gambling commission, Bogdanoff said at a press conference this morning with the Florida Latin Builders Association.

The gambling commission would have the power to grant up to three casino licenses (“destination resorts” in legislative parlance) in South Florida.

Bogdanoff, R-Fort Lauderdale, said the commission could also possibly rein in the Lottery, which she said is “taking money from our citizens and not really doing anything to benefit Florida.”

The money people spend on Lottery tickets would be spent elsewhere and make its way into the state’s general revenue fund anyway, Bogdanoff said.

Bogdanoff, most of whose district is in Palm Beach County, will introduce the latest twist in the casino proposal (SB 710, HB 479) at its first hearing tomorrow morning during a Senate Regulated Industries workshop.

The Hispanic builders are digging the “destination resorts” plan pushed by Bogdanoff and Rep. Erik Fresen, saying it’s just what the gasping construction industry needs.

Noelia Moreno, the organization’s past president, said that the state’s 20 percent unemployment rate in the construction industry is about twice that of the general population.

The legilsative duo’s proposal to build three high-end casinos in South Florida could create 40,000 contruction jobs and 100,000 permanent jobs, Moreno said.

“We need these jobs now. We needed them yesterday. But we definitely need them now,” Moreno said at a press conference joined by Bogdanoff, Fresen and other Latino builders.

Senate to workshop casinos bill next week

Wednesday, November 9th, 2011 by Dara Kam

The Senate Regulated Industries Committee will hold the first of two three-hour workshop on the destination resorts proposal on Wednesday, committee chairman Dennis Jones, R-Seminole, said.

Jones extended the committee’s usual two-hour meeting time to accomodate the dozens of lobbyists on both sides of the issue expected to speak out on the proposal (SB 710). Business and faith groups have lined up against the proposal while gambling operators from Las Vegas to Malaysia have lined up in support.

“There’s a lot of people that want to speak on this bill,” he said.

Jones said he’ll take 20 minutes of testimony each from those who wish to speak on the issue and allow out-of-towners to go first. He said he expects his committee to vote on the bill sometime before the second week of the 2012 legislative session that begins in early January. Expect to see plenty of amendments before the measure makes it to the floor, Jones predicted.

Sen. Ellyn Bogdanoff, R-Fort Lauderdale, is the sponsor of the proposal she says would allow up to three non-tribal casinos to open in Broward and Miami-Dade counties and create a statewide gambling commission. Jones said he thinks her bill is unconstitutional because it would create a monopoly in South Florida with impacts that would be felt in all 67 counties.

The state’s existing racinos – pari-mutuels in South Florida that also offer slot machine gambling – are objecting to the bill’s 10 percent tax rate for the “destination resorts.” The racinos currently pay 35 percent of their revenue in taxes.

Jones said he wants to explore “parity” in taxing and games during the workshops and isn’t convinced the proposed casinos would be getting a better deal under Bogdanoff’s bill.

Casinos would have to agree to invest at least $2 billion in the resorts and are likely to employ 5,000 workers and would be paying $75 million in local property and school taxes, Jones said. Meanwhile, the seven racinos in Broward and Miami-Dade only pay about $2 million in property taxes combined, he said.

“I think it’s a wash,” Jones said. “But that will be one of the things we’ll have to work out in the workshops to see how people feel.”

Cannon ‘skeptical’ about casinos

Wednesday, November 2nd, 2011 by Dara Kam

Despite the lure of big bucks in a bleak budget year, House Speaker Dean Cannon is dubious about a proposal to allow up to three Las Vegas-style casinos in South Florida.

“I remain very skeptical,” Cannon, R-Winter Park, told a gathering of reporters and editors at the Associated Press Florida Legislative Planning Session this morning.

Cannon said he remains “philosophically opposed to the expansion of gaming in the state.” His counterpart, Senate President Mike Haridopolos, has pledged that the Senate will have an up-or-down vote on the measure (SB 710, HB 487).

Sen. Ellyn Bogdanoff, R-Fort Lauderdale, and Rep. Erik Fresen, R-Miami, released their “destination resort” proposal last week. The plan, in its preliminary stages, also creates a statewide gaming commission.

Yesterday, a coalition of faith groups came out in opposition to the proposal, naming its defeat their top priority during the legislative session that ends early in March.

Cannon said he’s aware of a potential deal being crafted by lawmakers that would allow the from one to three casinos in South Florida in exchange for shutting down unregulated Internet cafes. But, he said, “I’ve yet to see a concrete plan to accomplish it.”

Cannon also said he would not pursue a plan to split up the Florida Supreme Court, an idea he pushed but later abandoned during the session this spring.

Religious groups rally against Florida brand-changing casino proposal

Tuesday, November 1st, 2011 by Dara Kam

A coalition of religious and anti-gambling groups are uniting to put pressure on lawmakers in the hopes of killing a proposal that would allow up to three Las Vegas-style casinos in South Florida.

The Florida Catholic Conference, the Florida Baptist Convention, Florida Family Action and Florida Casino Watch held a press conference Tuesday morning to declare war on the casino proposal, sponsored by Sen. Ellyn Bogdanoff, a Fort Lauderdale Republican whose district is dominated by Palm Beach County, and Rep. Erik Fresen, R-Miami.

Representatives of the religious groups objected to the “destination resorts” in part because, they said, gambling victimizes the poor and is accompanied by social costs such as addiction, prostitution, bankruptcy and suicide.

“This is the big Kahuna that’s been brought to the table to us. And we’ve shown up to say, ‘no thanks,’” said Rep. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala, a former head of the state Christian Coalition. He called the casino plan “the biggest brand change” in Florida.

Florida Family Action head John Stemberger, who also heads FFA’s parent group Florida Family Policy Council, named defeating the proposal his organization’s chief objective during the legislative session that ends early in March.

Stemberger plans to use the Internet to expose lawmakers’ votes on the issue with a “Wall of Fame” and “Wall of Shame” and is asking legislators to sign an anti-gambling pledge. Stemberger achieved success with a similar campaign in 2008 when he shepherded a ballot initiative onto the ballot and into the state constitution prohibiting same-sex marriage.

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Casino bills filed

Wednesday, October 26th, 2011 by Dara Kam

Rep. Erik Fresen today filed a suite of highly-anticipated gaming bills that would allow three high-end casinos in Miami-Dade and Broward counties.

The 142-page plan(HB 487) creates a seven-member gaming commission and a new state agency – the Department of Gaming Control -that would be responsible for oversight of all gambling ventures in the state except the lottery. Under Fresen’s proposal, the gaming commission would choose who can open casinos in Florida, selecting up to three vendors who promise to bring jobs to the state and spend at least $2 billion, not including the price of the property, to develop and build the “destination resorts.” Bidders would pay $50 million to apply.

Fresen, R-Miami, and Senate sponsor Ellyn Bogdanoff told The Palm Beach Post yesterday that it’s time for lawmakers to step up to the plate and establish a gaming vision for the state instead of the hodge-podge approach gambling-leery lawmakers have taken for decades.

“This is about creating a strategic direction for gaming,” Bogdanoff, a Fort Lauderdale Republican whose district includes part of Palm Beach County, said in a meeting with The Post’s editorial board yesterday evening. “Nobody has taken hold of the gaming issue because nobody wants to touch it. We are an anti-gaming legislature that refuses to deal with this holistically.”

The push for the casinos has spurred the revival of the dormant No Casinos Inc., headed by Orlando PR consultant John Sowinski. Sowinski is joining forces with businesses, faith-based groups and law enforcement officials opposed to the casino proposition.

After the bill was filed, Sowinski issued a press release asking lawmakers to look into a federal investigation into Las Vegas Sands, which is pushing the casino proposal. The Wall Street Journal reported last week that the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission and the U.S. Justice Department in March opened an investigation involving the gambling giant’s Macau’s casinos.

“It’s time to ask the tough questions, not fast-track legislation to build the biggest casinos in the world here in Florida,” Sowinski said in a statement. “Legislators should learn more about this investigation before moving a bill forward. They should also learn more about the enormous social and economic costs that mega-casinos would add to Florida taxpayers’ burden.”

Haridopolos on prison privatization, gambling and jobs

Thursday, October 6th, 2011 by Dara Kam

Senate President Mike Haridopolos defended lawmakers’ use of the budget to privatize an 18-county region from Polk County to the Florida Keys, said there would be a floor vote on an expansion of gambling and bragged about the state’s job growth in a Q-and-A with reporters this afternoon.

The Merritt Island Republican provided a detailed document to reporters as proof that talks about the nation’s largest prison privatization effort – now on hold after a Tallahassee circuit judge’s ruling that the way the legislature went about it was unconstitutional – had taken place in committees since January and not snuck into the budget at the last minute, as he said unnamed critics have implied. Although privatization was discussed at the meetings, lawmakers did not vote on or release details of any prison privatization plan until it was included in the state budget.

“I wanted to be very clear for those people who had concerns that this was something we stuck in late. This was addressed early and often and people all saw it coming both in the House and the Senate,” Haridopolos said.

The Florida Police Benevolent Association, the union that represents correctional workers, sued Gov. Rick Scott’s administration over the privatization, put by lawmakers into the budget in proviso language and signed into law by Scott this summer. Tallahassee Circuit Judge Jackie Fulford agreed with the union that the use of the proviso language to establish state policy was unconstitutional.

Scott has not yet decided whether to appeal but has said the privatization will happen eventually. And Haridopolos on Thursday said that the privatization will go forward, even if lawmakers have to pass a stand-alone bill when they reconvene in January. The proposal requires that the privatization of 29 prisons in the region cost at least 7 percent less than what the state currently spends – an estimated $22 million annual savings.

“I think the policy’s a good policy. We’re going to face another massive budget shortfall this year. And we’re going to spend more money on prisons and if we do we’ll spend less on education and health care,” Haridopolos said. “I guess other people have other priorities. My priority is to spend less on prisons.”

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When is a casino not a casino?

Friday, March 4th, 2011 by Dara Kam

When is a casino not a casino? When it’s billed as a “Destination Resort,” as Sens. Dennis Jones, R-Seminole, and Maria Sachs, D-Delray Beach, have done in a press release announcing legislation that would expand gambling statewide in Florida.

Jones, chairman of the Regulated Industries Committee, and committee vice chairwoman Sachs, are sponsoring a bill that would allow five casinos -one in each part of the state – if local voters approve.

But their 692-word joint press release announcing the “Destination Resorts/Trade Shows” bill (SB 1708) mentions the word “casino” just twice, tucked way down in the details of the measure.

“The possibility of bringing Destination Resorts to Florida includes a host of economic benefits,” Sachs says in the release. “These benefits will manifest themselves in new jobs for our construction industry, tourism, beaches, hospitality, and trades. This new energy and excitement will bring us back to the days when Florida was a mecca for top-notch entertainment and a destination in itself.”

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Gambling deal on its way to governor

Monday, April 19th, 2010 by Dara Kam

A gambling deal that promises to bring at least $1 billion to the state over the next five years is on its way to Gov. Charlie Crist, who has promised to sign it into law.

The Florida House approved the measure (SB 622) by a 74-39 vote this afternoon.

It’s the third time Crist and the Seminole Tribe of Florida have signed off on a compact allowing the tribe to operate banked card games, including blackjack, and slot machines at its casinos.

The latest deal would allow the Seminoles to continue banked card games – blackjack, baccarat and chemin de fer – at five of their seven casinos. Cards would not be allowed at the Brighton and Big Cypress facilities.

The agreement could rake in an extra $435 million for this year’s budget and help lawmakers struggling to fill a $3.2 billion spending gap for the year that begins July 1.

In return, the tribe will pay $150 million a year to the state for two years and a minimum of $223 million for three years that.

The agreement with the tribe also lets them keep running Las Vegas-style slot machines at each of their facilities for the next 20 years.

Rep. Bill Galvano, the House’s chief gambling negotiator who helped craft the pact, said the bill won’t expand gambling in Florida because the tribe has already launched the games.

Proponents of the agreement say the deal with the Seminoles could transform Florida into the Las Vegas of the Southeast and pave the way for other, non-tribal gambling operations in the future.

But opponents of the measure argued that more gambling will bring a host of problems to the state.

“If you want gambling like that you should go to Las Vegas. And what happens in Las Vegas should stay in Las Vegas,” said Rep. Ronald “Doc” Renuart, R-Ponte Vedra Beach.
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