State Politics

Florida casino bill may be in for defeat

TALLAHASSEE -- A bill that could bring three mega resort casinos to South Florida appeared doomed in the House on Thursday, as backers struggled to cobble together a minimum eight-vote majority on the committee that will consider the controversial legislation today.

If the bill fails to get out of the committee, it “is dead,” said Rep. Erik Fresen, R-Miami, the bill’s House sponsor in the House, leaving casino supporters to have to wait until next year to get it approved by the Legislature.

As lawmakers met in an eight-hour floor session on Thursday, Fresen spent the time buttonholing members of the Business and Consumer Affairs Subcommittee, which will hear the bill for the first time today.

“I actually don’t think the policy of this is as huge as the politics of it,” Fresen said. “Do the politics outweigh the policy? Maybe. I’ll know what’s going to happen on Friday.”

As proponents counted the votes Thursday, the anxiety among lawmakers was palpable. Lobbyists on both sides kept a constant count, comparing notes after they met with committee members, many of whom refused to publicly commit. Throughout the day the count swung from 8 to 7 in favor of the bill, to 8 to 7 against it.

Unlike nearly every controversial bill that has moved through the House, the chamber’s Republican leaders have not taken a caucus position and are allowing members to vote as they please, leaving many members unsettled.

Adding to the anxiety is the fact that the House redistricting maps have pitted at least 38 legislators into districts with another incumbent forcing them into uncertain terrain come November.

Fresen’s challenge has been to persuade committee members that by allowing three bids for the $2 billion resort casinos, South Florida’s economy will be helped, the state’s revenue stream will rise, and other areas of the state will not be harmed.

“It’s a double-edged sword -- the fact that it’s almost a local bill,” he said. “On the positive side, you can make the case that it’s only Miami-Dade and Broward, it’s never going to come to your backyard. On the other side, it’s ... why should I step up to the plate and get hit for something that’s only for Miami-Dade and Broward?”

The bill is being heavily lobbied on both sides. Out-of-state casino developers, led by the Malaysian-based Genting Resorts World, the Las Vegas Sands, Wynn Resorts and Caesar’s International have pumped more than $1 million into legislative campaign coffers in the last three months.

Genting was the first to lay claim to a potential site for its resort and convention center complex when it purchased the Miami Herald property last May.

On the other side is a coalition of business groups, led by Orlando-based Disney World. They are quietly being helped by the Seminole Tribe and the South Florida pari-mutuels, who fear the potential competition from resort casinos.

Fresen said he doesn’t believe the issue will become a campaign issue next year, “but I do believe that the monied interests that are against this bill will convince people that it will be.”

He has heard the promises, he said. “Those that are for it have told me: ‘On the campaign, we’ll make you look great. We’ll make you look like a job creator.’”

By contrast, the opponents, also have their promises, he said. “They say they will make you look like you sold Florida’s soul to the devil.”

On Wednesday, Fresen released a 146-page amendment to his bill that includes a handful of changes designed to help win support for the effort.

Among the changes, his bill would impose a one-time $125 million licensing fee paid for by the resort casinos with the intention of using some of the money to buyout existing horse and dog tracks.

The measure also bans, not regulates, Internet cafes and gives the state’s existing slot racinos in Miami-Dade and Broward a 10 percent tax rate, as long as they guarantee customers get a 90 percent payout on their slot games.

A companion bill in the Senate sponsored by Sen. Ellyn Bogdanoff, R-Fort Lauderdale, has passed a Senate committee, but only after it was expanded to allow for full Las Vegas casinos to be opened at any of the state’s pari-mutuels.

Getting approval for more Las Vegas style casinos in South Florida appeared to be too much for the more conservative House.

“There is a tremendous amount of money on both sides of the issue, so it makes it hyper-politicized,” Fresen said.

Rep. Scott Plakon, R-Longwood, met with Fresen for an hour Thursday and then announced his opposition via Twitter.

Plakon, traditionally a gambling opponent, faces an uncertain election year after being drawn into the same district with Rep. Chris Dorworth, R-Lake Mary, and now must move to a neighboring district in Altamonte Springs next fall.

“I’ve had everyone you can imagine coming to talk to me for weeks and weeks,” he said. “Now it’s decision time.”