Fla. Senate proposes new casinos, slot machines

By: Gary Fineout

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — The Republican-controlled Florida Senate on Monday rolled out a sweeping gambling proposal that would bring casinos to South Florida as well as expand the use of slot machines across the state.

A major component of the legislation would call for the creation of two $2 billion resort casinos, one each in Broward and Miami-Dade counties, if local voters give the green light in a referendum. It would allow dog tracks and horse tracks outside of South Florida to add slot machines to their locations.

Florida already has some casinos, such as one operated by the Seminole tribe in Tampa, but it has not yet authorized full-blown casinos similar to those in Las Vegas.

It’s not clear, however, whether the ambitious plans have enough votes in the Florida Legislature to pass. Some in Florida’s business community, including political heavyweights such as Disney, remain steadfastly opposed to any gambling expansion. The Florida House two years ago scuttled a bill to allow the creation of resort casinos.

All sides caught up in the fight over gambling, however, have poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into campaign accounts, meaning there could be a protracted tug of war on the issue during the annual legislative session that starts next week.

Sen. Garrett Richter, R-Naples and chairman of the Senate Gaming Committee, in a memo sent Monday to all senators cautioned that it could take weeks to discuss the legislation and answer questions before even the first vote is taken. The session ends in early May.

House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, continued to sound skeptical about the prospects of a gambling bill. He said his chamber will “approach gaming in a comprehensive manner.”

Weatherford said he wants Gov. Rick Scott to renegotiate the state’s existing compact with the Seminole Tribe for Florida before proceeding any further. The tribe inked a deal with former Gov. Charlie Crist that allowed slot machines and card games such as blackjack at several tribe casinos. The main portion of that compact, however, expires in 2015.

Weatherford also said he wants the issue brought before Florida’s voters.

The Senate proposal released Monday contains three separate bills, including a proposed constitutional amendment (SPB 7050) that would give voters a say in any future expansion of gambling. But the amendment would not apply to the provisions in a separate bill (SPB 7052) that would allow two additional casinos and slot machines at dog and horse tracks.

The proposed Senate bill also would aim to overhaul the state’s regulation of gambling by creating a new state agency called the Department of Gaming Control. This new agency would be overseen by a five-member board appointed by the governor. It would be up to this board to decide which company would get permission to open a casino.

An anti-casino group blasted the proposed bill and called it a “sell out” to gambling interests.

“It’s Christmas in February for out of state gambling interests, and their entire wish list can be found in these bills,” No Casinos President John Sowinski said in a statement. “I have yet to find any major provision that isn’t there at the request of somebody in the gambling industry.”