Mega-casino battle stays under cover
By Scott Blake
Watching and waiting. That's what opponents of bringing casino resorts to Miami are doing as casino operators strategize, spend money and lobby for what is shaping up to be their biggest push yet — not next year, but in 2014.
"These things take time," said Nick Iarossi, who is lobbying in Tallahassee for casino company Las Vegas Sands.
Mr. Iarossi said Sands is still interested in opening a casino in Miami or elsewhere in Florida, and is just one of several casino interests that have been active this year in the state's capital, including Genting.
The Malaysia-based conglomerate put itself at the forefront of the issue, coming out last year with plans to build a massive casino resort in downtown Miami, but was thwarted when bills to legalize such gambling palaces stalled during last winter's legislative session.
Genting has been mum about its latest plans for Miami. However, observers say the company is behind a political action committee — New Jobs and Revenues for Florida — that has raised $936,500 since April and spent $860,435, state records show, largely for polling services, consulting and legal services.
Anti-gambling group No Casinos for Florida President John Sowinski said Genting, after failing to get approval from the Legislature this year, appears to be gearing up for a 2014 statewide referendum to legalize casino resorts through a public vote.
"They're doing a lot of legal analysis and polling analysis," Mr. Sowinski said, "which tells me they're having a hard time finding something that the voters will have the stomach for."
He theorized that Genting, because of the hurdles of passing a ballot initiative, might just be using that as leverage to eventually negotiate a deal with the Legislature.
For example, he said, Genting could try to put a casino measure on the ballot that would provide no funding to the Legislature in hopes of pressuring lawmakers to come to the bargaining table.
Telephone calls this week to representatives for Genting and New Jobs and Revenues for Florida were not returned. Records filed with the state show the Tampa-based political action committee listed its interest as gaming with the purpose of a statewide constitutional initiative regarding gaming.
To get a constitutional amendment on the state ballot, Mr. Sowinski said, Genting would have to gather at least 700,000-plus signatures, and such a measure would need approval from at least 60% voters.
He theorized that Genting may be planning two ballot initiatives: one to approve casino resorts and another that would, at the same time, lower the voter approval threshold for it to at least 50%.
Mr. Sowinski also theorized that Genting may be rethinking its approach from last year, when it grandly announced plans for Resorts World Miami.
The multi-tower proposal was so large in terms of overall size, casino space, hotel rooms and condominiums that it would have been one of the world's largest casinos and dwarfed all other Miami hotels, condo complexes, and restaurant and nightlife spots.
He suggested Genting might have misread the reaction from residents and the business community to such a massive project, saying it might have stemmed from the East Asian cultural belief that "bigger is better" — a different approach than US casino operators when trying to get projects approved.
Sands lobbyist Mr. Iarossi said, as he understands it, Genting is behind New Jobs and Revenue for Florida, an apparent reference to the company's claims that casino resorts would create thousands of jobs and millions of dollars in tax revenue.
Mr. Iarossi said Sands is not part of New Jobs and Revenues for Florida, nor has it backed its own political action committee.
Instead, he said, Sands still believes the best way to legalize casino resorts in Florida is through the Legislature.
Mr. Iarossi said Sands is encouraged by recent reports that legislative leaders — specifically Sen. President Don Gaetz, a Republican from Niceville, and House Speaker Will Weatherford, a Republican from Wesley Chapel — want to pause and develop a comprehensive policy before changing any gambling laws.
Mr. Iarossi said it shows the Legislature wants to take an "academic" and "responsible" approach to studying the issue before making any changes, which probably would not come about until 2014.
When studied thoroughly, he added, Legislators should discover that casino resorts have more economic benefits than the state's current forms of gambling.
Sen. Gaetz and Rep. Weatherford could not be reached. An aide to Sen. Gaetz, however, said the Senate leader thinks various forms of gambling should be considered "holistically" when deciding how much gaming to allow.
Mr. Sowinski reads the recent reports about legislative leaders' stance much differently than Mr. Iarossi. Mr. Sowinski said it signals the new Senate and House leaders are less receptive than their predecessors to expanding forms of gambling.
He said top lawmakers, by suggesting the Legislature maybe take a two-year break on the issue, are indicating they do not want to open Florida to non-Native American-operated casinos during their watch.
Mr. Iarossi said the issue should open itself to negotiations in 2014, as the Seminole Tribe of Florida's agreement with the state approaches expiration in 2015. The agreement calls for the Seminoles to be allowed to exclusively operate table games in its Florida casinos in exchange for paying the state about $200 million a year.
When that agreement expires, he said, the Seminoles would face losing their monopoly on table games and the state would face losing a lot of revenue. That should open the door to negotiations on various forms of gambling, including the resort casinos, he said.
Former state Sen. Dan Gelber, a Miami attorney who was a leader in local efforts to block resort casinos last year, said the Legislature shouldn't need to study the issue to know that casinos are bad for Florida.
Regarding Genting's possible ballot plans, Mr. Gelber said: "They're trying to purchase a rewrite of the Florida Constitution."
He said casino opponents are not focusing on fundraising yet. Instead, they are monitoring the situation.
"We assume there'll be a referendum [from casino interests] at some point," he added. "We're just not sitting around. We're strategizing how to respond."
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