January 29, 2014

Legislative leaders lower expectations on a gambling bill

House Speaker Will Weatherford and Senate President Don Gaetz continued to lower expectations on the odds of a massive rewrite of Florida's gambling laws to get passed this year. 

"There are some issues that are forced on us by consequence, constitution, timing and gaming is an issue that is forced to the stage either this year or next year by the fact that the Seminole compact is up for some re-negotiation,'' Gaetz said, referring to the state's agreement with the Seminole Tribe that gives them a monopoly in exchange for about $250 million in annual payments to the state. One segment of the agreement is up for renewal in 2015.

"When you do that, you touch the dominoes that make everything else effective. I don't think expansion of gaming, or gaming legislation, would be a Will Weatherford or a Don Gaetz priority...It's not something we want to be involved in but it's something circumstances probably require either us or our successors to do something about."  

As the Herald/Times reported on Sunday, Gov. Rick Scott is also keeping his distance on the constroversial issues of gambling as he seeks re-election. That could change if Republicans determine that putting a constitutional amendment regarding gambling on the ballot could draw some voters to the polls that would support the governor.

Speaking to reporters at the annual AP Legislative Planning Session in Tallahassee, the Republican leaders downplayed the chances of moving legislation through this election year despite spending $400,000 and conducting a series of hearings around the state. 

Both leaders said they will not vote for any new gambling options in Florida without a provision for a statewide constitutional amendment. 

"The Legislature has demonstrated, over the last 30-40 years, frankly an inability to create normalcy, to create predictability in the gaming environment,'' said Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel. "It has allowed for more loopholes that I could count. I believe for the Florida House to even take up, to even consider a gaming bill, that we would have to have confidence that we are going to put a constitutional amendment on the with regard to the people to have a voice or I don't think you'll see us taking up gaming in the House."

Weatherford said the amendment would have to be a "referendum that would be approved at 60 percent for any other expansion of gaming. I thnk the citizens of Florida want to have their hand on the wheel when it comes to expansion of gambling." 

He defines expansion, he said, as "anything new."


January 26, 2014

Election year realities dampen governor, GOP enthusiasm for gambling debate

As Gov. Rick Scott ramps up his re-election bid, he wants his legacy to be the state's declining unemployment rate and jobs, but the next few months could shape his message on a more controversial issue: gambling.

Will the state renew or expand the Seminole Tribe's monopoly on blackjack and other casino-style table games? Should the state allow slot machines in communities, like Palm Beach and Naples, whose voters have approved them at their racetracks? Will casino giants Genting and Las Vegas Sands be allowed to build a resort casino on the shores of Biscayne Bay or in Broward County?

Because it's an election year, most observers believe the governor will avoid finding answers.

The issues don't lend themselves to 30-second campaign spots and pressure is mounting for lawmakers to postpone a decision on the most controversial gambling ideas until next year. Senate Gaming Committee Chairman Garrett Richter, R-Naples, is already lowering expectations.

"If an election year has any influence, it could influence the magnitude of what's undertaken,'' he told the Times/Herald. He suggested that a modest bill that tightens loopholes may get passed with everything else shuttled to another year. Story here.

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January 23, 2014

State suspects dog tracks of using steroids on greyhounds

GreyhoundsSteroids: They’re not just for professional athletes. They’re also for race dogs.

A dog trainer at the Flagler and Hollywood greyhound tracks has been charged with illegally possessing performance-enhancing drugs, raising the prospect that drugs are being illegally used to enhance racing results.

The Florida Division of Parimutuel Wagering charged James “Barney” O’Donnell, the operator of the Florida Kennel Compound in Hialeah, with violating state laws that prohibit the possession of the drugs where racing animals are kept. The facility, which houses hundreds of dogs, is jointly owned by Mardi Gras and Flagler dog tracks.

O’Donnell, 84, is one of the industry’s largest greyhound operators in the nation. He owns and trains dogs in multiple states and runs the compound shared by South Florida’s racinos.

State regulators say it is illegal to use any anabolic steroids on racing dogs, but the state does not test for their presence when dogs are tested after a race.

“This calls into question the integrity of the race,’’ said Carey Thiel, executive director of GREY2K USA, a Massachusetts-based greyhound protection organization that monitors animal treatment in Florida. “We don’t know whether this was an attempt to prevent estrus (heat) in female greyhounds or enhance the performance in racing dogs — either of those are troubling.”

Dan Adkins, owner of Mardi Gras Racetrack and Casino in Hollywood, said he learned of the investigation on Thursday from a Herald/Times reporter.

“Congratulations. You beat the state,’’ he said. “We’re going to follow up on it and take whatever action is necessary.’’

Although the drugs were first discovered at the kennel in August, the state has not taken any disciplinary action against the trainer or the track. More here.   

January 16, 2014

No Casinos premiers its video talking points in Tallahassee theater


A group aimed at opposing the emergence of new casinos in Florida put its talking points into a slick new video documentary that premiered Wednesday for legislators at a Tallahassee theater.

No Casinos, the Orlando-based group which produced the movie-quality video, invited legislators and lobbyists to attend a showing of the video at the Tallahassee IMAX during the Legislature's committee week, complete with complimentary popcorn and sodas. In attendance were dozens of lobbyists, community members and a handful of legislators, most of whom are perceived to be opposed to the expansion of casinos.

Legislators are attempting to embark on a rewrite of Florida's hole-ridden gambling laws and decide for the third time whether to allow Las Vegas-style casinos into South Florida, where gambling giants Las Vegas Sands, Genting and Wynn Casinos are eager to set up shop.

The video begins with a brief history of gambling in Florida, including an interview with Florida historian Gary Mormino, and tracking many of the themes we wrote about in this story.

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January 07, 2014

Genting offers plan for a slots-only casino aimed at winning horse racing support

Miami Herald demolishedGenting Resorts World announced Monday that it wants to stake its fortunes on a scaled-back, slots-only resort on the Miami waterfront, a suggestion that the company may be prepared to sidetrack the glitzy destination resort that it planned two years ago.

Under the proposal, the Malaysian gambling company would enter into a four-way partnership that would allow it to use a permit owned by Gulfstream racetrack to open a slots casino at the Biscayne Bay property once owned by the Miami Herald.

If approved by legislators or state gambling regulators, the permit would allow Genting’s Resorts World Miami to open 2,000 slot machines and off-track betting. The proceeds would be used to augment thoroughbred purses at Gulfstream’s racetrack and go into a non-profit company to benefit the other partners: Florida horse breeders, owners and trainers. Genting and Gulfstream would keep some of the revenue as administrative fees.

“I think it’s game-changing,” said Lonny Powell, CEO of the Florida Thoroughbred Breeders and Owners Association. “This is the first partnership where the revenue stream and investment would actually go back into the horses.”

Gulfstream has argued that a permit it obtained last year for a non-profit subsidiary allows it to operate in both Miami-Dade and Broward counties because of property it owns that straddles the county line. But state regulators have rejected that interpretation and Genting would have to get legislators to clarify the law, get partimutuel regulators to change the ruling or take the matter to court to obtain the permit.

The concept is a “less lucrative option” than the $3.1 billion resort on 13.9 acres originally sought by the company in 2011, said Genting lobbyist Brian Ballard, but allows the company to work with the horseracing industry. More here.

Photo: Former Miami Herald building being dismantled

December 09, 2013

Proponents of Sunrise casino destination make their case in Senate gaming committee

The Florida Panthers hockey team could be the first major sports team linked to a destination casino if legislators permit an expansion of gambling, proponents said Monday after a meeting of the Senate Committee on Gaming.

Sunrise Sports & Entertainment is partnering with Las Vegas-based Boyd Gaming Corporation on its proposal for a hotel, spa and casino with 50,000 square feet for meeting space on the land adjacent to the BB & T Center in the city of Sunrise. Broward County owns the land.

The BB & T Center, which hosts concerts and special events as well as hockey games, is across the road from Sawgrass Mills, considered Florida's second-largest tourist destination with more than 350 outlet stores, and near the Sawgrass Expressway and other roads, factors that make it a prime location for the casino/hotel resort, said Michael Yormark, president and CEO of Sunrise Sports & Entertainment and the Florida Panthers NHL hockey team.

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November 04, 2013

Public opinion on gambling expansion "like succotash"

Industry officials, experts and members of the public travelled to Tallahassee on Monday to offer feedback on a new report examining the potential economic and social impacts of expanded gambling in Florida.

The report, by the New Jersey-based research firm Spectrum, found that additional casinos would have a “moderately positive impact” on the state economy and could create tens of thousands of direct and indirect jobs.

The social costs would be minimal, the authors concluded, “especially since gambling opportunities are already widespread across Florida.”

The speakers at Monday’s Senate hearing had varying viewpoints on the study.

Terry Kasberg, a real estate broker and internet café owner from Spring Hill, said big casinos would hurt local restaurants owners and hotel operators.

“It’s like putting a Super Wal-Mart into a small town and watching the other little stores just go bye-bye,” Kasberg said.

But Nick Iarossi, a lobbyist for the casino company Las Vegas Sands, said a destination casino would not cannibalize surrounding businesses. Iarossi recommended state lawmakers allow casino operators to compete for a limited number of destination-casino permits. He also wants the state to better regulate the industry.

“My client would advocate for a strong regulatory environment here with the addition of a gaming commission, similar to what Nevada or New Jersey has,” he said.

Iarossi said Las Vegas Sands was hoping to set up shop in South Florida.

The tart reply from Sen. Gwen Margolis, D-Miami: “Don’t come to Miami-Dade County, my friend.”

Other speakers expressed a similar distaste for casinos.

Sergeant Wiley Meggs, of the Florida Sheriffs Association, said new casinos would cause the crime rate to spike.

“Any time you get a casino, you end up with higher rates of burglary and theft, higher [rates of] fraud and more violent crimes…” Meggs said. “The brunt of it falls on local law enforcement.”

Jennifer Campbell, of the Florida Council on Compulsive Gambling, implored the committee to consider the problem of compulsive gambling.

Adam Giery, of the Florida Chamber of Commerce, raised concerns about Florida's "family-friendly brand."

"We as a business community must stand and do everything we can to protect that brand,” he said.

A handful of other speakers addressed how new laws would affect racinos and pari-mutuels.

When the public testimony finished, the members Senate Committee on Gaming declined to weigh in.

The meeting was one of several recent public hearings on gambling. The committee solicited public input in Coconut Creek and Lakeland last month. Additional hearings are scheduled for Pensacola on Nov. 14 and Jacksonville on Nov. 15.

Sen. Garrett Richter, the Naples Republican who chairs the gaming panel, said the public comments have run the gamut.

"It's like succotash," he said. "There's peas, there's carrots. I don't have any sense that the committee, at this point, is developing a united front on a solution."

He added: "The work in front of us is not going to be obvious. It is going to be a challenge. But I think the committee is up for the challenge."

August 09, 2013

Donald Trump: Florida would make a mistake not to bring casinos to Miami

Donald Trump, the new owner of the Doral Golf Resort & Spa, is barreling ahead with his $250 million remake of the once-troubled facility, but is he also ready to pave the way for casinos in Florida?

The Donald this month hired Tallahassee uber-lobbyist Brian Ballard to represent him in the Capital City and, he told the Herald/Times, Florida would be foolish to not let Miami compete with Las Vegas.

"If Miami doesn't do casinos, that would be a terrible mistake," Trump said in an interview on Friday. "Taxes would be able to be reduced substantially and Miami is the only place that Las Vegas is really concerned about -- in the United States."

Florida legislators are expected to piece together some sort of gambling bill when the legislature begins its session next March but the scope of it, and whether it will include destination resorts that expand casino gambling in South Florida, remains to be seen. Lawmakers postponed plans to do a series of hearings around the state this summer and are awaiting an information-gathering report from the Spectrum Gaming group to be completed this fall.

Continue reading "Donald Trump: Florida would make a mistake not to bring casinos to Miami" »

July 05, 2013

Did state regulators rubber stamp 'phony horse racing'? PolitiFact weighs in


A masked thief fanning $100 bills is the backdrop for an ad blasting “phony horse racing.”

You’re probably thinking, “Phony horse racing? Huh?” It’s okay — we thought it, too.

A coalition of horse breeders and owners used the phrase for races they deem improper at a rural racino west of Tallahassee. Expansion of parimutuel rodeo-style racing has dramatic consequences for the quarter horse industry and parimutuels, opponents say.

“Florida outlawed Internet cafes, but rubber-stamped phony horse racing,” begins the United Florida Horsemen ad. “Gov. Scott, can you tell us why?”

Is the ad’s message hyperbole or on point? PolitiFact says the ad is...half true.  


April 29, 2013

Casino opponents go on the offensive against legislative gambling contract

 No Casinos, the Orlando-based anti-gambling group, is launching a television and radio campaign urging House Speaker Will Weatherford and Senate President Don Gaetz to abandon the $400,000 contract they signed two weeks ago with Spectrum Gaming Group for a study of the state's gambling climate.

They say the company cannot be independent since it works with the gambling industry.

John Sowinski, president of the group that is backed by Disney, the Florida Chamber of Commerce and other industry-backed companies, commended the legislative leaders for quick passage of legislation to outlaw the Internet cafes but noted, "unfortunately, your leadership on this issue and the good work of the committees you formed to study it are now in peril,'' he wrote. "The reason: the experts chosen by your staff to conduct a study on gambling and the impact of additional gambling in Florida have irreconcilable conflicts of interest."

He urged them to cancel the contract and "stop what will otherwise become $400,000 taxpayer dollars spent on a study that no objective person who knows of its author will believe. Rescue the good idea of studying the impacts of gambling by having experts who have never worked for the industry conduct the study."  Download NoCasinos-Letter-to-President-Gaetz-and-Speaker-Weatherford

The television ad is produced in the style of a too-good-to-be-true television pitch with fast-talking announcer claiming that the gambling industry believes slots are good for your heart. "The Florida Legislature has hired the same reseracher to find out if more gambling will be good for Florida,'' the announcer says. "Folks, this deal is so big, so crazy, there's only one place where you can it it and that's right here from the Florida Legislature."

A television and radio ad campaign limited to Tallahassee has been begun, Sowinski said.