By Kathleen Haughney, Tallahassee Bureau
6:54 PM EDT, May 27, 2011
TALLAHASSEE– A movement to bring Las Vegas-style “destination casinos” to Florida fell apart this year when lawmakers could not come to an agreement on whether the state should further expand its gaming industry. But industry lobbyists and lawmakers are already drafting a revamped plan to push to the Legislature when it returns to Tallahassee this fall.
And the announcement Friday that The Miami Herald has sold its 14-acre bayfront property to a large Asian casino operator is likely to intensify that push. Genting Malaysia Berhard, whose interests range from casinos to cruise ships, has been lobbying lawmakers to open Florida to destination resorts – though its initial plans for a resort on the Herald’s Biscayne Bay site did not mention a casino.
Las Vegas Sands, a multi-billion corporation that runs destination resort casinos all over the world, also has been lobbying for the past few years to open Florida — particularly South Florida — to glitzy Vegas-style venues. But legislators squeamish about the expansion of gambling – especially House members — have balked.
Nick Iarossi, a Tallahassee lobbyist for the Sands, said that his clients are gearing up for a major lobbying effort – and are prepared to walk away if they don’t succeed.
“I think they feel as though if Florida doesn’t make a significant stride forward this next session in authorizing destination resorts, I think they’re going to determine that their resources are best spent in other markets,” he said.
In the 2011 session, lawmakers in both chambers filed bills that would have allowed five “destination resorts” around the state that would have featured full casino gaming as well as convention centers and luxury hotels. But the bills foundered after South Florida racinos – which now operate slot machines — demanded the right to operate as full casinos with a tax rate identical to any future gaming facility run by a big operator like Sands.
“We’d like to be a full casino and have a reduced tax rate so we can build destination casinos right here,” said Dan Adkins, vice president of Hallandale Beach’s Mardi Gras Gaming.
Rep. Erik Fresen, R-Miami, who sponsored the House legislation, is already overhauling last session’s bill.
The proposal he hopes to file in August, when lawmakers can begin proposing legislation for the 2012 session, would allow for three or four big casinos to be built only in Miami-Dade and Broward counties. Companies seeking a license would have to guarantee a minimum investment — possibly $2 billion or $3 billion — and a minimum number of jobs.
“I want to really entice the larger players, the larger investors in these destination resorts, to know that Florida, particularly South Florida is going to be open to it,” he said.
Fresen said he believed that it would be easier to get legislation approved if it were restricted to South Florida because the area already offers gaming, and it is the area the destination resorts seem most interested in. He said he will also look at parity issues for the existing pari-mutuels.
Fresen said Genting Malaysia Berhard’s $236-million purchase of the Herald’s property and building “shows how serious some of these companies are to wanting to come down here.”
Gov. Rick Scott’s position on gaming expansion has been less clear.
Shortly after his election, he met with Sheldon Adelson, owner of Las Vegas Sands Corp., in Las Vegas on the way to a Republican Governors Association meeting in California. But he stopped short of saying he supported gaming expansion in Florida.
Thursday, Scott vetoed $400,000 that was to be used for a comprehensive study on the economic impact of gaming in Florida, a study won by casino backers after last session’s legislation failed. But in his veto message, Scott said his decision had nothing to do with the gambling issue itself.
“…I encourage the Legislature to make a comprehensive review of additional gaming, I believe it is important to have a full consideration of the positive economic impact, the costs that may result from this policy, and the impact on current gaming in our state,” Scott wrote in his veto message.
“However, such a study at this time is an expense Florida taxpayers should not incur.”
Iarossi said that he believed the governor was still open to the possibility of bringing resort hotels and casinos to the state.
“Of course we would have prefer that he didn’t veto it, [but] we don’t feel that he’s sending a veto message that destination resorts is off the table,” he said.