Millions flow into party accounts before session

Jan 10, 2012

The following article was published in the Bradenton Herald on January 10, 2012: 

Millions flow into party accounts before session

By Gary Fineout

Florida Republicans and Democrats took in millions in the last three months of the year, as companies involved in a contentious fight over casinos in the Sunshine State poured tens of thousands into party campaign accounts.

Campaign reports filed Tuesday showed that the Republican Party of Florida raised nearly $7.5 million in the final three months of 2011. That was the best fundraising quarter the party had last year.

The Florida Democratic Party, by contrast, raised just over $1.78 million.

Both parties took in large amounts of money from those trying to convince the GOP-controlled Legislature to either approve, or kill, a bill that would allow the creation of three large casinos in the state. The measure, which passed its first hurdle in the Senate earlier this week, would also now allow the state’s dog and horse tracks to expand their gambling operations as well.

The 2012 session officially started on Tuesday.

A subsidiary of Genting, the Malaysian company that wants to build a casino in downtown Miami on the shores of Biscayne Bay, donated nearly $100,000 to Democrats and $200,000 to Republicans. Genting also picked spent more than $6,000 on food and beverage for Democrats as well. Campaign reports show that during the second half of 2011 Genting has now donated more than $626,000 to political parties, legislators and political committees in Florida.

“As a company that has been operating in Florida for over a decade, we are proud to support candidates that genuinely work in favor of a pro-business, pro-jobs, pro-growth policy agenda,” said Jessica Hoppe, senior vice president government affairs and general counsel for Genting’s Resorts World.

The Seminole Tribe of Florida, which already runs a handful of casinos in the state and has been opposed to the current legislation, donated $105,000 to Democrats and gave Republicans $175,000.

Disney, another vocal opponent of the casino legislation, also gave large amounts to both parties in the final three months of the year. Disney gave $50,000 in cash to Democrats and $165,000 to Republicans. Walt Disney World also provided more than $100,000 worth of in-kind donations, including costs for a reception to Democrats.

Owners of dog tracks and horse tracks also contributed $185,000 to the two parties during the last quarter as well.

Senate President Mike Haridpolos, R-Merritt Island, on Tuesday contended that raising money is a natural byproduct of the political process and noted that it takes money to campaign in a big state in Florida, pointing out that state senators represent more than 500,000 people.

“Fundraising is just a reality of politics,” Haridopolos said. “Competing interest groups give money on either side, we’re seeing it all across the country.”

It wasn’t just those involved in the casino fight who donated to the two parties. Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Florida, one of the state’s largest health insurers, gave more than $650,000 to the Republican Party of Florida while giving $50,000 to Democrats.

Other groups who donated to Republicans include utility companies, tobacco companies, sugar companies, health care interests and companies that been pushing to privatize state prisons and other services. Democrats also took in money from many of the same companies, but also received donations from unions and the fundraising arm of the state association that represents trial attorneys.

While many of those who gave money have issues in front of state legislators it’s the tug-of-war over the casino bill that captivated the Legislature and split business groups, organizations and even members of the majority party. Both sides are now running ads on television and the Internet, with one new ad pushed by a group including the Florida Chamber of Commerce that decries “out of state” and “foreign” interests pushing casinos. Opponents have retaliated with their own online attack on Disney.

Haridopolos repeated his promise to bring the bill to the full Senate for an up or down vote in the remaining 59 days of the session.

“I think it’s important we don’t bottle the bill up in committee,” he said.

House Speaker Dean Cannon, who has been skeptical of the casino bill, refused to render a verdict on the legislation after it had been changed to help out existing dog and horse tracks outside South Florida to add slot machines if local voters approve. Cannon, who has publicly stated he does not support anything that would expand gambling in the state, said the changes made this week were “interesting.”

A House panel is scheduled to hold a workshop on gambling in Florida on Wednesday.