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Gaming propsal readied for major changes during session

By James Call


Tallahassee, FL – A Senate Committee workshop on a destination casino bill leaves some lawmakers calling for a major rewrite. James Call reports, lawmakers expressed numerous concerns about a proposal that would bring world-class resorts with casinos to Florida.

Officials from some of the world's more profitable gaming corporations were among the standing-room-only crowd when Florida Senators held a workshop on a destination casino resort proposal. Andy Abboud, vice president of the Las Vegas Sands was among the executives who testified.

"I understand I am just a guy in a suit from Las Vegas, this is your decision. All the decisions are yours. You are going to make decisions in the best interest of Florida."

Fort Lauderdale Senator Ellyn Bogdanoff and Miami Representative Erik Fresen are sponsoring legislation permitting three destination resorts with Las Vegas-style casinos. A 2.5 hour workshop identified weaknesses in the proposal. Abboud advised senators to proceed with caution. He suggests the plan is too ambitious. Abboud notes that Florida will soon have more than 24,000 slot machines in operation.

"That's more machines then the core of the Las Vegas strip. It's a tremendous amount of gaming volume. So, we really don't know what the market can sustain. But we do know everyone agrees that it could sustain one. Some people think it could sustain up to three. We don't think it can sustain up to three $2 billion resorts."

Industry experts say the minimum $2 billion dollar investment almost insures the casinos would be located in South Florida, the only market in the state capable of supporting such an investment. Seminole Senator Dennis Jones chairs the Regulated Industries committee where the bill now sits. Last session he wrote a bill allowing up to five casinos. Jones' proposal did not require a $2 billion investment and thus opened smaller markets to casinos. It's an idea that Jones indicates still holds his interest.

"We've had a lot of interest down in the Fort Myers' area. There's interest in Jacksonville or near Daytona Beach, certainly in the Tampa Bay area we have 3 .5 million people. I don't think one size fits all. If we move this Trade Show bill forward for Florida, remember casinos are only 10 percent of the footprint. I think there needs to be a little more flexibility in how we set the commission up to do the best job for Florida in the future."

It is such comments that have the bill's sponsor talking about a strike-all amendment and a rewrite of the proposal. Senator Bogdanoff says the proposed tax rate casinos would pay is tied to the initial investment. If less money is put up front then expect a higher tax rate.

"It has to do with return on investment, where you get your financing, so that is where we came up with the 10-percent. Obviously that is up for debate. They want to change the level of investment, they want to change the tax rate. Obviously we will discuss it."

Also up for discussion is what Donn Mitchell of the Isle Casino Pompano Park calls free-market parity for the pari-mutuel industry. He says the five south Florida racinos -- race tracks with casinos featuring slot machines and card games -- should have the same business platform as the proposed destination casinos. That is, they want to offer the same games, pay the same tax rate and provide the same amenities like free alcohol and credit for gamblers. Otherwise Mitchell says they will go out of business and the state will lose the $100 million they now pay in taxes.

"We believe in smart growth. We believe in giving all the casinos here the tools needed so that they can compete so that the state can get the most it can out of the industry. That means full parity for the South Florida casinos."

After spending a morning listening to testimony chairman Jones came to the conclusion that the Destination Casino Resort bill or what he calls the "Trade Show" bill is on the verge of being changed dramatically.

"I think this bill will be big enough once we get it out of committee. As you can tell from this committee there is a lot of different ideas about what should be done and what shouldn't be done, what should be in it and what shouldn't be in it, but it won't look like it does today."

Jones committee will hold a second workshop on the proposal in December. Jones intends to hold a vote on the bill during the first week of the session in January. Senate President Mike Haridopolos indicates he would like to have a floor vote also in January.