Florida Senate Proposes New Casinos, Slot Machines

New bills to authorize large casinos have been introduced in the Florida Senate Gaming Committee, chaired by Senator Garrett Richter (l.). The three measures would legalize large integrated resorts, allow slots at horse and dog racetracks and a rodeo site, and set up a new gaming agency charged with regulating and controlling gaming in the Sunshine State.

Among the proposals to be taken up by the Florida legislature when it meets on Tuesday, March 4 will be three Senate bills that would allow two billion resort casinos–one each in Broward and Miami-Dade counties, depending on a voter referendum. The proposal also would allow slot machines at dog and horse racetracks in Palm Beach and Lee Counties and at a rodeo track in Gadsden County, and establish a new Department of Gaming Control, overseen by a five-member board appointed by the governor. The measures also allow the state’s 13 greyhound tracks to reduce the number of dograces offered. And, for the first time since dog racing became legal 80 years ago, track owners and trainers would be required to report dog injuries.

All of the changes would take effect this year, but the bills also propose a constitutional amendment to require voter approval for any future gambling expansion. Whether there are enough votes in the legislature to pass the bills remains unclear.

Senator Garrett Richter, chairman of the Senate Gaming Committee, said, “I thought this would be a very good starting line to have the discussion. I think the bill is composed of statutes and regulations that have the best interests of Florida in mind.” Richter added the sweeping legislation is designed to “reform the current patchwork of laws into an orderly structure.”

Richter’s three proposed bills include the constitutional amendment, the destination casinos and gambling commission together and a public-record exemption for casinos from revealing proprietary confidential information when applying for a resort license. The bills do not address tax rates or blackjack for parimutuels.

Over at the House, Speaker Will Weatherford said he will not accept any gambling expansion unless Governor Rick Scott negotiates and signs a new compact with the Seminole Tribe of Florida, which currently has exclusive rights to blackjack and other table games and generates $230 million annually for the state in return. The governor’s staff members have met with tribe members but not with the Seminole’s lead negotiator Barry Richard.  My personal goal is to pass a constitutional amendment that gives the power and authority of expansion back to the people. Whatever the least amount of expansion that would have to be done to get that, I’m willing to talk about. We don’t know what that looks like yet.”

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

The group recently premiered its documentary, “Pushing Luck,” at select Florida movie theatres and has shown it to legislators. The film focuses on the negative impact of voter-approved casinos in New Jersey in the late 1970s. “Our message to voters is that the social and economic costs of expanded gambling far outweigh any benefit. It’s a bad bet for Florida and we would end up as the losers. The only real winners would be the owners of the casinos,” Sowinski said.

Yet a majority of 400 likely voters—56 percent—in Miami-Dade county said they want “destination resort” casinos, according to a recent survey financed by unnamed gaming interests. Tom Eldon, who conducted the survey, said, “The story here is that there’s a strong level of enthusiasm among Hispanics, among Cuban Americans and even among Republicans in Miami-Dade for high-end resorts like this.”

The poll also indicated lawmakers could benefit by voting for expanded gambling: 39 percent of those polled said they’d be more likely to favor a legislator who supported the measure;  27 percent said they’d be less likely to support that individual; and 20 percent said it would not make a difference.

In Davie, city officials are questioning the Seminole Tribe of Florida’s claim that 10.6 acres adjacent to the tribe’s Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in Hollywood will be used for housing. The tribe has asked the BIA to take the former mobile home parkland into trust. The property generates $97,000 in annual property taxes, with $26,251 going to the Davie treasury.


Town Attorney John Rayson said, “The town doesn’t want casino operations expanded. We are concerned. We don’t know what their plans are.” At a recent strategy session, Councilman Bryan Caletka said residents should “object the whole way, kicking and screaming.” Mayor Judy Paul said she did not “want to give up any land” and previously asked the BIA to deny the tribe’s request.

In contrast, officials in Coconut Creek have encouraged the BIA to take into trust 40-plus acres of Seminole land bordering the tribe’s Coconut Creek casino. Mayor Becky Tooley said the city currently collects $2.3 million annually from the tribe for public safety and utility services, but the city simply will ask the tribe for more to make up for lost taxes if the land is placed in trust. Tooley added, “People have said we were going to get crime and prostitution and that hasn’t happened.”

And in Dania Beach, the remodeled Dania Casino & Jai Alai recently debuted. Ondiss Corporation, an Argentinean group headed by millionaire businessman Cristóbal López, known as the “Casinos Czar” in Argentina, owns 75 percent and a local group owns the rest. They invested $85 million in the facility, installing 550 slots and 12 table games on the first floor, and an exclusive poker room, bar and stage on the second floor. The jai alai area that once seated 10,000 people now accommodates 130. In recent years, attendance had dropped to 50 people in the regular season, and the property reported annual losses of $3.5 million.

Federico De Achával, president of Ondiss, said the second stage of the renovation will move forward, with a total of 1,400 slots, a hotel, marina and waterway access. Dania will employ 300 people and that number is expected to grow, he said.

Ondiss purchased the fronton last may from Boyd Gaming for $65.5 million. Boyd purchased the property in 2006 for $152 million when Broward County voters approved slots, but sold the 61-year old property to the Argentine group due to high tax rates on slots and competition from the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel and Casino. The state lowered the tax rate to 35 percent in 2010.