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Casino bill is set: 3 resort licenses in MD and Broward $6 billion impact

One of the most eagerly-awaited pieces of legislation in the state Capitol  – opening the door to full casino gambling -- is awaiting release as early as Friday. Story here.

The first round of negotiations has ended and House sponsor Erik Fresen, R-Miami, and Senate sponsor Ellyn Bogdanoff, R-Fort Lauderdale, will release two identical bills, Fresen told the Miami Herald/St. Petersburg Times. The bills are now in bill drafting.

The bills will allow for the state to accept bids for three resort casinos in Miami Dade and Broward, the two counties that now offer slot machines gaming,

Bidders will be required to pay a $50 million application fee and show that they are willing to make a capital investment of a minimum $2 billion in each facility.

The gambling footprint must be subdued, and limited. No more than 10 percent of the total square footage of the facility must be dedicated to the Las Vegas style games, such as slot machines, roulette wheels and craps tables. And the space must be segregated from other attractions – so that a visitor can attend the resort without ever having to see the gambling machines, Fresen said.

The structure of the new gambling board is patterned after both Nevada and New Jersey regulatory gaming commissions, the sponsors said. The new law would require strict background checks for all casino employees and vigorous financial screening for casino owners and partners, Bogdanoff said. The gambling commission, which itself will be carefully vetted, will evaluate the bids and select the winners based on a scoring scale that gives preferences to proposals that create the most jobs and complete work the earliest, Bogdanoff said.

The 90-plus-page bill will give casinos the lowest rate yet for any gambling operation in Florida: 10 percent on net revenues. That is certain to draw the ire of the seven pari-mutuels with slot machine licenses in South Florida. They currently pay a tax rate of 35 percent on their slots games and have made it clear they want parity, as well as the opportunity to bid for the resort casino licenses.

 “We took the best of what we thought of both commissions,’’ Fresen said.

The tax rate on net gambling revenues will be set at the lowest rate yet for gambling, 10 percent.

There is no provision in the bill for parimutuels, the horse and dog tracks and jai alai frontons that now operate across the state. The seven parimutuels with slot machine licenses in South Florida now pay a tax rate of 35 percent on their operations and they have made it clear they want parity – as well as a chance to bid for one of the resort casino licenses.

Also not included is any provision to regulate or outlaw the so-called internet cafes and sweepstakes gambling halls that have sprung up at more than 1,000 locations across the state because of a loophole in the sweepstakes law.

The lawmakers have been buttonholed for weeks by the growing swarm of gambling lobbyists eager to influence it. The bills are the opening casino salvo of  the 2012 legislative session. Fresen expects changes to follow.

“The process is a sausage factory,’’ he said.

“I fully anticipate the status of parimutuels and internet cafes to be part of the conversation,’’ he said.

Some of the world's largest gaming companies are already making plans for South Florida.

The Malaysia-based Gentling Group purchased land owned by The Miami Herald for $236 million and assembled nearly 30 acres of adjacent property for what it estimates will be a $3 billion development called Resorts World Miami.

The Las Vegas Sands and Wynn Resorts have also met with South Florida property owners, including the owners of the Miami World Center property in Miami’s Park West neighborhood.

Meanwhile, South Florida’s largest casino resorts operator, the Seminole Tribe, also hopes to be part of the conversation.

The Tribe, which operates the Hard Rock Casino in Hollywood, is interested in bidding for one of the full casino licenses in Miami Dade or Broward, said the tribe’s lawyer Barry Richard.

The tribe’s pitch, he said, is that they already make a guaranteed $1 billion payment in the first five years of the existing 20-year gambling compact, and could pay even more in the future. The state could lose that guaranteed money if competitors area allowed to operate in South Florida.

“If the legislature wants to expand gaming, what makes the most sense is for them to talk to the tribe first,’’ Richard said. “The tribe’s not limited to its reservations. It can build a casino anywhere. If they negotiate with the tribe, they don’t have to give up the money they just make a deal with them.”

Like the other mega casinos hoping to move into South Florida, the Seminole Tribe has expanded its gaming operations overseas and built resort-style casinos in several international markets.