TALLAHASSEE — In a major shift in strategy, the Genting Group, the Malaysian-based casino giant, told legislative leaders this week that it will stop a petition drive to get a casino amendment on the 2014 ballot, leaving it to lawmakers to decide the future of gambling in Florida.
"We are not going forward with a petition drive effort and there have not been any petitions gathered,'' said Brian Ballard, a lobbyist for Genting, after meeting with legislative leaders. "The approach the Legislature is taking with this — a thoughtful analysis — we think makes absolute sense and we want to be a constructive player in it."
Genting led a failed effort earlier this year to bring destination resort-style casino gambling to Florida. The measure never made it out of a House committee and was loaded down with provisions in the Senate before it was declared dead.
During the past election cycle, Genting created a political committee — New Jobs and Revenue For Florida — and spent money on voter petition consultants, constitutional scholars and pollsters in an effort to set the stage for a constitutional amendment to make casinos legal. The goal was to have it go before voters in 2014.
As Florida's legislative leaders changed strategy on the gambling issue, the company decided it would take a less aggressive strategy.
House Speaker Will Weatherford and Senate President Don Gaetz, both of whom are vocal opponents of expanding gambling, have each said it was time to put gaming regulation on center stage in the next two years. Their plans also include renegotiating — a year earlier than scheduled — the revenue-sharing compact with the Seminole Tribe, which now brings the state $233 million a year.
"We currently have a lot of gambling in the state of Florida, but we have to take a very holistic view," said Weatherford, a Wesley Chapel Republican, told the Times/Herald earlier this year. "There needs to be clarity and direction as to where the state is going," he added, and the tribal compact will "very likely" be part of that.
Gaetz created a Gaming Committee, intended to deal with the issue exclusively for the first time in recent legislative history. He named Sen. Garrett Richter, R-Naples, to be the committee's chairman.
Genting had spent more than $905,000 this election cycle gearing up for a possible petition drive. It hired Nation Voter Outreach, a Nevada-based political consulting firm that specializes in organizing signature drives. It hired constitutional scholar, Bruce Rogow, of Fort Lauderdale, to work on amendment language and paid political consultant and pollster Tony Fabrizio to devise a political strategy.
Ballard said the company has abandoned those plans because the next two years provide "a good opportunity to look at all aspects of the regulatory and strategic environment."
A pivotal player in the debate will be the Broward-based Seminole Tribe, the owner of the Hard Rock Casinos in Hollywood and Tampa, and five other casinos in Florida. Its agreement with the state gives the Seminoles the exclusive right to offer blackjack and other table games in Miami-Dade and Broward counties through 2015 in exchange for annual payments to state and local governments.
Legislators imposed the expiration date when they ratified the compact in 2010 to give the state time for a comprehensive look at Florida's gambling laws.
Genting wants to build a gambling resort on land now occupied by the Miami Herald Building near downtown Miami. Genting paid Herald parent McClatchy Co. $236 million for the 13.9-acre site in 2011.