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"Destination Resort" Bill Clears Committee

By: Brandon Larrabee, The News Service of Florida Email
By: Brandon Larrabee, The News Service of Florida Email

THE CAPITAL, TALLAHASSEE, April 6, 2011 --

A bill paving the way for up to five “destination resort” casinos to open in Florida finally passed the Senate Commerce and Tourism Committee on Tuesday, but prospects for what opponents label a massive expansion in gambling still seem dicey at best.

Supporters say the measure (SB 2050), which passed on a 4-2 vote, would reinvigorate the state’s tourism market and add as many as 100,000 jobs to the state workforce -- if a casino opened up in each of the five regions created to house one of the facilities.

“We can make Florida again one of the top convention-based markets in the world,” said Nick Iarossi, a lobbyist for Las Vegas Sands.

In apparent efforts to rally support or make the bill palatable, the measure was amended several times to try to protect the thoroughbred industry from any impacts of the casinos; to provide pari-mutuels with slot machines with similar games and tax rates as any new facility that opens in Miami-Dade or Broward county; and to require any county that hasn’t passed a referendum allowing slots to do so before a facility could open there.

But the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Oscar Braynon, D-Miami Gardens, conceded Tuesday that the bill could end a previous hard-fought measure authorizing gambling that was passed by the Legislature.

“As soon as the first card is dealt, we would be null and void on our Seminole gaming compact,” he told the committee.

Braynon said those concerns might be overblown, though, because the new facilities would likely not open before the first five-year term of the compact ends, and because the state would still get revenue from the tribe’s Tampa facility if it opened a destination resort only in Miami-Dade.

Even some supporters seemed uneasy with that loss, especially in combination with some of the restrictions on casinos and the state’s revenues under the bill.

“You’re limiting locations, you’re limiting the amount of money we can collect ... but the minute you shuffle that first card, we’re losing the Indian money,” said Committee Chairwoman Nancy Detert, R-Venice.

Opponents bored in on what they portrayed as a sweeping expansion of the state’s role in gambling with an apparent eye on sagging tax collections and uncertain economic conditions.

“I think that it really is just a sad day in Florida when we’ve now made the decision that the way we’re going to fix our economy is by expanding gaming,” said Sen. Anitere Flores, R-Miami.

For gaming interests, simply getting a vote was something of a victory. A similar measure by Sen. Dennis Jones, R-Seminole, was twice scheduled to be considered by the committee but temporarily postponed before Jones yanked the measure from consideration, apparently because of an inability to reach agreement on the pari-mutuels provision.

But Braynon’s proposal still faces an uphill climb to become law. The bill still has two more committee stops before heading to the full Senate, and a House companion was assigned to a committee that has since been disbanded by Speaker Dean Cannon, R-Winter Park. A spokeswoman for Cannon’s office said Tuesday there are no plans to reassign the measure to another committee.


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