Casino bill blocked in House

TALLAHASSEE — The push to transform Florida into an East Coast version of Las Vegas fell apart on Friday after state legislators rejected a plan to bring three major casinos to the state.

A House panel postponed a vote on a bill that would have granted casino licenses to major developers who pledged to spend at least $2 billion on a resort. The decision effectively doomed the proposal with both sponsors of the bill saying that the matter would not come up again before the session ends in March.

“Today’s action on the casino gambling bill is a resounding victory for those of us who have opposed this assault on Florida’s family friendly economy,” said Rep. Gary Aubuchon, R-Cape Coral.

Rep. Erik Fresen, R-Miami, asked for the delay after it was apparent that his fellow Republicans were likely to vote down the bill.

The casino legislation had been one of the most heavily lobbied bills of the 2012 session and drew opposition from such heavyweights as the Florida Chamber of Commerce and Disney. Dog and horse track owners also weighed in and demanded that legislators block any bill that would put them at a competitive disadvantage.

The measure was backed by Las Vegas Sands and Genting, the Malaysian company that has already spent nearly a half-billion dollars to acquire downtown Miami real estate in the hopes of building a massive resort and casino complex.

Both sides took to the television airwaves — especially in Tallahassee — running ads urging the defeat or support of the bill. And they both hired scores of lobbyists to pressure legislators in a manner that Fresen himself called “suffocating.”

Fresen and Sen. Ellyn Bogdanoff, R-Fort Lauderdale, said that the fierce fight between special interests over the legislation probably proved its undoing.

“It didn’t allow the full conversation to take place outside the spectrum of a 30-second ad,” Fresen said.

Bogdanoff said she doubted that a bill could be passed anytime soon, saying it wasn’t “realistic” that the legislation could be revived next year.

Instead she predicted it will take an ongoing expansion of other types of gambling — such as storefront operations known as Internet cafes — to prompt lawmakers to act. The casino bill called for creating a new government structure to oversee all gambling that takes place in the state.

“I think the state of Florida is in for a rude awakening because I think gaming will continue to grow,” Bogdanoff said.

One legislator said one problem was that the bill (HB 487) kept changing in an effort to win support.

The Senate version, for example, was changed to give dog tracks and horse tracks in South Florida the ability to offer the same casino games as the major developers. Track owners argued that the House version — which did not include that provision — would have put them out of business.

The last version of the House bill also would have banned Internet cafes that have spread across the state and it would have prevented tracks outside of South Florida from adding slot machines. The Senate version would have allowed tracks to add slot machines with voter approval.

“This was a recipe that was just not complete,” said Rep. Doug Holder, R-Sarasota and chairman of the panel that considered the measure on Friday. “It had all the right ingredients but it wasn’t finished.”

Isadore Havenick, owner of the Naples-Fort Myers Greyhound track says he’s not giving up on slots.

“I plan on fighting hard and educating residents in Lee County about the benefits,” Havenick said about adding slot machines to the racetrack.

He said the slot machines could potentially create 500 new jobs in the area and bring a dedicated new revenue source in Bonita Springs and to Lee County.

In Lee County, a charter county, the Lee County Commissioners have the authority to determine what happens at the track, pending a county-wide referendum. Charters are formal written documents that confer powers, duties, or privileges on the county, according to the Florida Association of Counties. Two weeks ago commissioners agreed to allow the registered voters in Lee County to voice their thoughts on the Nov. 6 ballot.

Jessica Hoppe, a top official with Resorts World Miami, said that its parent company Genting is not giving up on its plans to bring a casino to Miami.

“I don’t think this issue will go away, today is not the last day,” Hoppe told reporters.

The Florida Legislature had also considered the casino legislation in the 2011 session, but the bill had additional momentum this year because of Genting’s major investment.

Backers and opponents of the bill made their case to legislators at the hearing on Friday. Supporters contended that the legislation would produce thousands of jobs at a time when Florida is still reeling from the recession and its unemployment rate is just under 10 percent.

Others, however, said it would cannibalize existing businesses and would harm the state’s image.

To Havenick, the House’s decision is indicative of a compassion for the smaller businesses.

“We think we saw from legislation today that there’s a concern that local businesses are not protected in this legislation,” he said. “They just want to make sure existing businesses that have been in Florida for 50, or 80 years are protected and able to survive and give back to the community.”

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