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Gaming bill dies in House

The House sponsor of a bill to bring three major casinos to South Florida folded his hand Friday. James Call reports the Business and Consumer Affairs Subcommittee voted to table the proposal which would have introduced high-stakes Vegas-style casinos to the state.

Miami Representative Erik Fresen has worked the Destination Resorts Casino bill since October.  He spent the past week counting and recounting votes. The 8 to 7 split among the subcommittee was fluid. Fresen reworked the proposal but after more than 2 hours of testimony he knew the numbers were not with him and passed a note to the chairman and asked to speak.

“Having the ability to read the tea leaves and to recognize where this bill is headed in this committee, it’s probably not going to be afforded the opportunity for the proper and necessary debate for it. I would, in a very friendly matter ask that Chairman Holder to temporarily postponed this bill.”

A coalition of business groups had emerged to fight the proposal. It included Disney World, the Florida Chamber of Commerce, the Seminole Tribe and the existing pari-mutual industry. They contended, among other things, that Vegas-style gambling does not fit Florida’s family-friendly image. Carol Dover of the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association cited unemployment statistics from Nevada and New Jersey to cast doubt on the proponents claims that casinos would produce tens of thousands of jobs. She read part of a letter from a Miami seafood restaurant owner to imply that casinos would cannibalize existing businesses.

“There is not one good reason for them to want to go outside that casino. It’s hard to compete with comp meals and drinks. You have got to show me a place where restaurants and retailers outside the casino did well.  I am not risking my sweat equity of 100 years for their promises.”

The proposal would allow three destination-resort casinos to operate in Broward and Miami-Dade counties. Operators would have to pledge a $2 billion to building a resort to get a license to operate a casino. Supporters say a $6 billion investment would put thousands of people to work. The Great Recession hit Florida’s construction industry hard. Industry experts say the unemployment rate in that sector exceeds 25-percent, a rate that rivals the Great Depression. Miguel Fuentes represents the Florida Carpenters Association and traveled from Hialeah to Tallahassee to ask lawmakers to approve the bill and put people to work.

“I just want the opportunity to tell my guys -- over 10,000 carpenters who don’t want to be on unemployment, who don’t want food stamps, who are proud craftsman who want to go to work -- I want to say to them, guess what? They heard you. They take a hard look at it and did the responsible thing and we are going to be building some buildings.  And you are not going to be sitting at a kitchen table wondering how you are going to pay those bills next month.  Rather you are going to be able to splurge once a week and buy something to put on the table and have a nice family dinner. And know that next week you are going to have another check.  That’s what we are talking about here.”

Fuentes was followed by a South Florida Tea Party spokesman who said a poll of 2,000 of his members showed overwhelming support. But despite such testimony, Fresen realized he needed to pull the bill or it would be killed. The decision left supporters scrambling. Jessica Hoppe, general counsel for Genting’s Resorts World Miami, which would like to build a destination casino in Florida, says the company will assess the vote.

“We’re obviously going to regroup and see where it goes the rest of session. And we eagerly await what comes for the future. We obviously have an issue for Florida that does not end today.”

Shortly after the subcommittee tabled the proposal, the House Rules Chairman, Representative Gary Aubuchon, released a statement that he will not allow the measure to be revived this session. Few though, think the issue is dead forever.

Gambling interests have long set their eyes on the Sunshine State. Bill Bunkley of the Florida Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission has fought the gambling industry in legislative committee meetings for more than 20 years. He says his group will remain vigilant in its fight against the expansion of gambling.

“It’s just a brief time out. If you think they are going to go away they are not. And the other part is we won’t either. It’s kind of awesome the type of money that is being deployed at very levels to make this happen. We don’t have those types of resources, and all I can do is go in and try to reason and have conversations.”

 As Bunkley suggested, the casino bill is one of the most heavily lobbied bills of the 2012 session. The Florida Chamber, Disney World and restaurants and hotels fighting it while Associated Industries of Florida, Casino companies and trade groups supporting it. The delay in the House is likely to doom the proposal this year. The bill could be revived if the House were to take up a Senate bill that has stalled after being approved by one committee.