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Casino bill all but dies as Fresen postpones vote

Florida’s resort casino debate has folded for the session.

After a lengthy debate, the House Business and Consumer Affairs and subcommittee stopped short of killing the bill to bring three so-called destination resorts to Florida but, by failing to take a final vote on the measure, left it on life support.

After working for weeks to muster the votes on the 15-member committee, Rep. Erik Fresen, R-Miami, couldn’t get a majority. He asked the committee to postpone a vote, leaving it in indefinite limbo under House rules. The only opportunity to revive it is if the House takes up a similar Senate bill.

Minutes after the vote, the House Rules chairman Rep. Gary Aubuchon underscored that point, issuing a statement that as long as he is chairman he will not allow the measure to be revived.

"Today's decision by the House Business and Consumer Affairs Subcommittee to postpone a vote on a bill that would usher in the largest gambling expansion in state history means the issue is dead,'' he said.  He called it a "resounding victory for those of us who have opposed this assault on Florida's family friendly economy."

Jessica Hoppe, general counsel for Genting's Resorts World Miami, said the company will continue its commitment to Florida, will assess the vote, determine what next they can do before the end of session in four weeks and "regroup."

"I would hope this issue comes back alive,'' she said. "We'll just have to wait and see."

She said she expects the bill to come back. "We obviously know this is an issue for Florida that does not end today,'' she said.

A similar bill in the Senate, sponsored by Sen. Ellyn Bogdanoff, R-Fort Lauderdale, has passed one committee but has remained stalled as that chamber waited for the more conservative House to take action. Senate President Mike Haridopolos has said he wanted the measure to get a vote of the full Senate.

In the end, Fresen couldn’t overcome the opposition headed up by a coalition of business groups, with financing and support from prominent Miami businessman Norman Braman and Disney World. The coalition included the Florida Chamber of Commerce, the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association, religious groups, and was assisted by the powerful lobby of the state’s existing pari-mutuel industry and the Seminole Tribe.

Dan Adkins, head of Mardi Gras Casino and Racetrack in Hollywood, said they would have supported the bill if it was changed to mirror a provision in the Senate that would give their racinos the same Las Vegas games as the resort casinos. Fresen had already modified the bill to give them to same tax rate.

"I think what this does is it levels the playing field and gives us an oportunit to regroup and try to bring this issue back in the right manner next year,'' Adkins said. 

"What we saw here today obviously showed there was a lot of concern and not a lot of support for a massive expansion of gambling in Florida,'' said David Hart, vice president of the Florida Chamber. "With five weeks left in session to hopefully remove this issue from the table, I think we can now focus on some of the important issues that face this state."

The 15-member committee included members from all areas of the state but was dominated by conservative Republicans. Four of the five Democrats on the committee were members of the House's black caucus and the committee vice chairman, Rep. Joe Abruzzo of West Palm Beach, opposed the bill. Miami Reps. Ana Rivas Logan and Carlos Trujillo, both Republicans, also would have split if a vote had been taken. Rivas Logan had told supporters she favored the bill while Trujillo wrote an op-ed in the Miami Herald announcing his opposition.

Committee chairman Rep. Doug Holder opened the debate over the bill, saying it’s “been a long time coming” and Fresen replied “for a small repealer bill.”

“My task today is to try to frame the purpose of this destination resorts away from everything you have heard for the past six months,’’ Fresen said.

He said the proposal has been “the product of a lot of blood and sweat” but “may not be perfect.”

He noted that in most of Florida history, no gaming bill had ever attempted to retract or restrict gaming, Fresen said, but warned that with the proliferation of Internet Cafes. “We have to do something quickly…if we don’t do something to rein in the out of control expansion of gaming."

He said the first intent is “a net contraction in gaming” by eliminating existing non-active licenses and “recognizes an economic opportunity” in Miami Dade which already has Las Vegas style casinos. “We already have them we are simply trying ot redirect the type of casino gaming.”

Fresen said it was never his intent to create revenue for the state but noted that it will not only protect the revenue but “also create the best opportunity for that to expand it while also create real economic opportunity.”

“Let’s recognize at the very least that there’s something that needs to be done on gaming in the state of Florida…elimination is simply a fool’s dream and it will never happen in this state unfortunately.”

The bill would eliminate dormant gaming permits, he said. It creates “a framework” for up to three destination resorts in Miami Dade and Broward counties but only if county voters approve.

"That will take place in a hyperlocal intensive conversation,” he said.

He called the minimum investment of $2 billion historic and will “elevate” the quality of the resort, create a safeguard and ensure they will no longer build a slot barn.

“Florida is full of loopholes and fake statutes,’’ he said, referring to state gambling laws that include “incredibile specificity and incredible vagueness at the same time.”

“I respect everybody’s decision in this debate,’’ he said, but noted that there are exaggerations, including the projections of 100,000 jobs by supporters. “But it will create tens of thousands of jobs, absolutely, I do believe that.”

Rep. Jim Waldman withdrew his amendment to provide product parity to pari-mutuels. Rep. Geraldine Thompson offered an amendment to create 30 percent economic development for local employers but it failed on a voice vote along party lines.

Miguel Fuentes of the Florida Carpenters Association from Hialeah predicted that his industry has 40 percent unemployment and urged the committee to support the bill as a lifeline to their members.

“On Main Street people are wondering what Tallahassee is going to do today,’’ he said. “I just want an opportunity to have something to compete for…to tell my guys, 10,000 carpenters who want to go to work who don’t want to go on food stamps.”

Everett Wilkinson, chairman of the South Florida Tea Party, said he was “just an average guy” who came to support the bill. He said a poll of 2,000 members supported the measure by 60 percent. 

“This bill is about American dreams,’’ he said. “It doesn’t matter what kind of job – a carpenter or a service person, this will create thousands and thousands of jobs.”

Richard Watson of Associated Builders and Contractors told the committee that they expect 15,000 to 18,000 construction jobs for more than two years if the bill is approved.

“We have a great state and people will continue to visit and we can only expect an expansion of tourism,’’ he said.

Bill Herrle of the National Federation of Independent Businesses said most of their small business owner were divided about casinos but a survey of their members disputed the allegation that it would cannibalize existing opportunity but instead would provide additional entrepreneurial opportunities.

Brewster Bevis of Associated Industries of Florida said the money will bring “new money to Florida” and will bring construction, hospitalitiy jobs and other related jobs. “Florida is currently at a fork in the road, down one road is the larget job proposal we hae seen in recently history. The other road is  …this committee is the gatekeeper.

Grace Solares, a neighborhood activist in Miami said the proposal would “be disastrous to the quality of life in this city” and compared it to “opening the door to an incidious diseasse. Do no wash you hands like Pontius pilate did. Do your durty. Stop it now.”

“Not only will South Florida not benefit economically but this project will infect our community” with large scale gambling and crime. “We will lose the existing tourist industry to only one business,’’ she said .

Carol Dover of the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association predicted that jobs will close, citing Las Vegas and Atlantic city unemployment rates.

The biggest concern of her members, however, she said, is their business model allows them to heavily discount or give away meals and rooms because they are subsidized by the casino money.

Proponents brought testimony from, the general manager of the Hotel Sofitel, a hospitalitiy expert from Tampa, and a real estate broker who described the empty terrain that has pockmarked downtown Miami.

“Let the people of Miami decide,’’ said David Restainer, sales director Fortune International in Miami. “Cruise ships that you see have casinos inside. We don’t call them casinos. We call them cruise ships. …You put one of those where the empty lots are…you can actaivate that entire area."