Miami Herald: Lawmakers push for full casinos in Florida resorts

Jan 26, 2010

The Miami Herald published this article on January 26, 2010.

Legislators suggest bringing casinos to Florida as part of `destination resorts.’

Herald/Times Tallahassee Bureau

TALLAHASSEE — Ellyn Bogdanoff has given up. Once one of the most ardent opponents of gambling expansion in the Florida House, the Fort Lauderdale legislator is now ready to open the doors to full-fledged casinos because, she says, Florida “is losing the battle” to the Seminole Tribe.

Backed by one of Las Vegas’ largest gambling magnates, Bogdanoff wants to allow casinos at five to seven “destination resorts” throughout the state through the Florida Gaming Equalization Act.

Under the plan, voters would first have to approve the casinos in local referendums. Then, a state gaming commission would grant permits for the convention-focused entertainment centers. Applicants could range from the big names of Vegas to Florida’s parimutuel industry. The expansion would offer competition to the Seminole Tribe’s Hard Rock casino resorts near Hollywood and Tampa.

Sheldon Adelson, chairman and CEO of the Las Vegas Sands Corp., told The Miami Herald/St. Petersburg Times on Friday that he is prepared to invest in bringing mega-convention centers and casinos to Florida that would include shopping centers, theaters, spas, hotels, restaurants and, yes, full casinos.

One possibility: a $3 billion resort casino that could create as many as 7,000 jobs, he said.

“We’re not interested in putting up slot parlors or a gambling den. We want destinations and integrated resorts,” he said. “This is our specialty and we would have a very good interest in getting in — with the provision they don’t allow so many” that the gambling market would be saturated.

Adelson, a billionaire developer of mega-resort hotels and convention centers, has hired a Tallahassee lobbyist, made several visits to Florida to make the case for the concept, and has contributed heavily to Florida campaigns — including $19,000 from him and his family to Gov. Charlie Crist’s U.S. Senate campaign. His corporation will open its fourth resort in Singapore in April, a 50-acre, $5.5 billion investment.


Florida appeals to him, he said, because of its attractiveness to national and South American travelers.

“I’d have to be in South Florida,” Adelson said. He said he’d also consider sites in Tampa Bay and Orlando, as long as the resorts were no more than 20 minutes from an international airport.

For the last two years, Florida lawmakers have been in a pitched battle with the Seminoles and Crist over a gambling compact that would enable the tribe to have slot machines and the exclusive operation of blackjack and other table games at its seven reservations in exchange for payments to the state.

Adelson said that by allowing the Seminole Tribe to expand, “the state is losing out on job creation. The state is missing out on tax revenue and the chance to do regulation right.”

Despite having no valid agreement, the Seminoles have expanded their operations, opened a new casino, and set aside $225 million to pay the state if the agreement is reached.

Now, Bogdanoff is trying to persuade her colleagues that it may be time to give up on the compact and instead “create competition to an industry that is not going away.”

Bogdanoff’s support for the plan is an about-face for her. A Republican running for the state Senate seat being vacated by Senate President Jeff Atwater, she campaigned with former Gov. Jeb Bush against bringing slot machines to Miami-Dade and Broward counties in 2005. She helped secure a 50 percent tax rate on slots in 2006. And she has been one of the most strident opponents to the governor’s compact with the tribe since then.

But the tax rate and other restrictions have “put a chokehold” on the parimutuel industry, Bogdanoff said, and legislators “have to keep throwing them lifelines. How do we allow them to invent themselves?”

Bogdanoff is not alone. Two other prominent conservatives — Rep. Alan Hays, an Umatilla Republican, and Rep. Carlos Lopez-Cantera, a Miami Republican — also say they are open to bringing full casinos to Florida.


But the major shift in thinking is no game-changer. House Speaker Larry Cretul says the idea for destination casinos is not ripe yet and his chamber is still focused on getting a deal reached on the gambling compact with the Seminoles.

While Adelson and Bogdanoff have “amped up” the debate, “and there might be some who think that there’s an opening,” Cretul said, “I’m not so sure the opening is there.”

A House committee plans a hearing in February on Bogdanoff’s idea and other alternatives to signing a compact, said Rep. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, who heads the Select Committee on Indian Compact Review.

And even the ailing parimutuel industry doesn’t see the idea for destination resorts and casinos getting traction in this election year.

“Ellyn fought against me from day one so I’m glad she’s now got the right idea,” said Dan Adkins, head of Mardi Gras Racetrack and Casino in Hallandale Beach. “But I don’t think you can get it.”