Lobbyists, Campaign Cash Flowing To Florida

Conservative legislators said they could support expanded gambling if Governor Rick Scott negotiates a Seminole Tribe compact this year, and if voters pass a constitutional amendment requiring their approval of any future gambling expansion. Meanwhile, supporters (Genting and Las Vegas Sands) and opponents (Disney, owners of Orlando’s Disney World at left) are sending lobbyists and campaign donations.

Conservative leaders of the Florida House of Representatives recently said they would be willing to pass expanded gambling legislation under two conditions: If Governor Rick Scott negotiates a new gaming compact with the Seminole Tribe in this year, not in 2015 when a key provision is set to expire, and if voters pass a constitutional amendment in November requiring voter approval of any future expansion of gambling, beyond this year. “It’s a trade-off that I’m willing to do,” said House Speaker Will Weatherford.

He added, “I don’t want to say I speak for the whole House, but we have a ton of loopholes that have created a very disenfranchised gaming system in Florida. I would love to clean that up. I would also like to create long-term stability, so that if anybody else new wants to come to Florida and they want to expand gaming or any existing entity wants to expand gaming in Florida, they have to go to the voters and get a 60 percent referendum to do so.”

Weatherford said in this session, which starts March 4, House leaders will “wait to see what the Senate is doing and we’re going to react to it.” They will have that opportunity when the Senate Gaming Committee releases a draft expanded gambling bill—said to be at 300 pages long—on Monday, February 10. The bill is expected to allow destination casino resorts in exchange for a statewide referendum vote; establish a gaming commission; allow racetracks to offer gambling without live racing; require pari-mutuels to get local voter approval to offer slots; and change arcade video slot machine requirements, among other provisions.

Regarding Scott and the Seminole compact, Weatherford said, “I don’t know how the legislature can have a gaming bill if the governor doesn’t have a new negotiated compact with the tribe. I think it has to happen this year.” Under Florida law, only the governor can negotiate a compact with the Seminoles. A provision in the current compact gives the tribe the exclusive right to operate banked card games at its seven casinos until July 2015, in exchange for annual payments totaling $1 billion over five years. If the state allows a destination resort casino in Miami to offer the same games, the tribe can stop making payments to the state, unless new compact permits other exclusive rights or allows the tribe to offer roulette and craps.

To date Scott has not begun any negotiations with the tribe, said Seminole attorney Barry Richard. Scott has said he will wait for the legislature to make a move before he begins negotiations. Frank Collins, the governor’s communications director, said, “With the gaming compact set to expire in 2015, we will take the time needed to get the best deal for Floridians.”

In the meantime, since 2012, gambling interests have donated more than $3.4 million to Florida lawmakers; Walt Disney Company, the world’s largest entertainment operation, seeking to protect its Walt Disney World Resort including theme parks and 700,000 square feet of meeting space in five convention facilities, has contributed $1.7 million–including more than $400,000 in free theme park tickets and entertainment in the past year, state records show. Scott’s re-election committee has collected $500,000 from the Seminole Tribe and $250,000 from Sheldon Adelson, owner of Las Vegas Sands.

Nick Iarossi, a Tallahassee-based lobbyist representing Las Vegas Sands, said, “Florida is better suited than even a New York or a Maryland for an integrated resort. Our tourism-based economy is really perfect for the convention and trade-show business.”

Adelson and Malaysia-based Genting have dispatched dozens of lobbyists to Tallahassee to prevail upon legislators to consider allowing up to three Las Vegas-style destination casino resorts in South Florida. State records show Disney hired 34 lobbyists last year and a similar number have been hired this year to work against expanded gambling, said Disney spokeswoman Andrea Finger.

Robert Jarvis, who teaches gambling law at Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale, said, “Gambling interests in Las Vegas and Atlantic City are looking for new territory, and opening Florida to them would be tremendous. The fear for Disney is that instead of people going to Disney and dropping their disposable income there, they’ll go to the destination casinos and drop their money there.”

Finger noted, “The massive expansion of gambling that would come from legalizing mega-casinos would be a bad bet for Florida’s taxpayers, tourism brand and existing businesses.” She stated the company’s opposition to expanded gambling is not based on any potential threat to its convention bookings.

Noted Etan Mark, a lawyer for Miami Jai-Alai which has 1,000 slot machines owned by Florida Gaming Corporation,  Disney is “one of the most powerful special interests around. The specter of getting targeted by Disney in an election, I’m sure, is weighing very heavily on a number of these state representatives as they consider what the next step is going to be.”

The expanded gambling debate in Florida picked up steam in 2011 when Genting spent more than $400 million on Miami-area real estate for its Resorts World Miami project. The following year the legislature rejected a Genting-backed proposal to build a $3.8 billion casino resort. Opposition from Disney and others helped kill the plan, despite Genting’s $4 million-plus campaign contributions and lobbyist expenses. Recently Genting proposed opening a slots-only casino in Miami, using one of Gulfstream racetrack’s gaming licenses. A major Genting supporter is the business trade group Associated Industries of Florida, which recently launched a marketing campaign promoting casino resorts as a “huge magnet for convention and trades shows.”

Besides Disney, opponents of expanded gambling include the powerful Florida Chamber of Commerce. Vice President David Hart said one of the group’s priorities this year is to defeat any gambling proposals in order to protect Florida’s “family-friendly” image. “This is going to be a real battle in the legislature. Part of the reason is that the casinos, whether that’s the Malaysian Group, Genting, or whether that’s Las Vegas Sands, they need Florida a lot more than we need them,” Hart said.

Also opposed is the Orlando-based anti-gambling group No Casinos, which hired 23 lobbyists last year. No Casinos President John Sowinski said the fact that expanded gambling “is an issue being discussed by the legislature at all is a testament to the political influence of the gambling industry.” He noted legislators are ignoring the results of the legislature-commissioned Spectrum Gaming Group report, which found that gambling would continue to expand and actually have little impact on the state’s economy. “Never has so much intellectual energy been spent on an issue for which there is so little public appetite,” Sowinski said.