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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.

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.

(more…)

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.

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.”

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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