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Lawmakers set their sights on gambling in 2012


The Senate sponsor of a bill that would allow three destination casinos to open in Florida has rewritten the proposal. James Call reports, Fort Lauderdale Senator Ellyn Bogdanoff says she’s trying to build support among lawmakers to bring Las Vegas-style gambling to the Sunshine State.

Senator Ellyn Bogdanoff says she has listened to her colleagues in the Senate during four hours of workshops on the omnibus gaming proposal. The Friday before the Legislature begins its 2012 session Bogdanoff made more than 30 changes to the bill. The idea behind the revisions she says is to address concerns lawmakers have about the idea.

 “It is my desire to try to accommodate their needs and at the same time not lose my overall vision that I’m trying to create, which is a strategic direction for gaming and to provide competition in an area where the state, unfortunately, sold a monopoly when we signed the compact.”

Bogdanoff’s rewrite includes a county-wide vote to approve any new gambling, slot machines for existing pari-mutuels and tax parity for pari-mutuels. Horse and dog tracks and Jai Alai Frontons would pay the same 10-percent rate as the proposed casinos.

Bogdanoff’s bill divides the business community; for instance the Florida Chamber is opposed, saying the plan conflicts with the family-vacation image Florida has cultivated, while Associated Industries of Florida supports it saying it will create tens of thousands of jobs.

To get a permit to open a Destination Resort Casino one would have to pledge to invest $2 billion to build it. That has gotten the attention of the construction industry. Carol Bowen represents Associated Builders and Contractors. She says the unemployment rate among construction workers is about 25-percent and that Bogdanoff’s bill would put people back to work.

“There’s long-term, short-term high-quality jobs that are going to come out of this that will have long- term positive economic situations for the state. And there’s just no time like the present.”

While the proposal would permit up to three Vegas-style casinos, Bogdanoff says it also closes numerous loopholes in current laws. Those loopholes have enabled about 1,000 Internet Cafes to open across the state and for the nation’s only Barrel Horse racing track to operate in North Florida.  Bogdanoff says closing the loopholes will stop the expansion of gambling and reduce the number of gambling locations in the state.

Although Governor Rick Scott has not commented on Bogdanoff’s proposal he has expressed concern about loopholes in the law. Like the one that enabled a Gretna race track owner to transform Barrel Racing, a rodeo sport into a pari-mutuel event. The track operators invested $20 million to build the facility and are now fending off court challenges to its racing permit.

“I think for everything we do in the state that laws ought to be as clear as possible and uh so people are not surprised. It is not a positive if people go and invest dollars and don’t know if things are in compliance with laws or not. I think it is incumbent on everybody involved in the legislative process and to the extent that I can have an impact on that so that it is clear what you can and cannot do.”

Bogdanoff says she has not asked the Governor for support, as of yet. Her focus is to try to find votes in the Legislature. Senate President Mike Haridopolos also has not expressed a position but has promised a Senate vote on the bill. Speaker of the House Dean Cannon says the bill supporters face a challenge given the size and complexity of the proposal along with it being an election year. He thinks the bill is going to be a tough sale.

“I’ve heard that there are arguments that you can allow destination resorts and otherwise restrain gaming so as a result in a net reduction. But I am skeptical of a bill that does that passing both the House and the Senate.”

 The Senate Regulated Industry Committee will take up the rewritten Destination Resort bill Monday afternoon. If it makes it out of that committee it will head to the Rules Committee chaired by Jacksonville Senator John Thrasher, who has expressed reservations about the proposal.  Bogdanoff tells the bill’s supporters to expect a wild ride.