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Florida lawmakers end expanded gambling push

6 Feb 2012

By Howard Stutz
MIAMI, Florida -- Lawmakers ended an effort to build three Las Vegas-style hotel-casinos in the southern part of state Friday, dashing the hopes of major Nevada gaming companies that saw Florida as a potentially lucrative casino market.

A Florida legislator withdrew the destination resort bill before a key House subcommittee in Tallahassee could hold a vote.

The House rules chairman immediately released a statement declaring the bill would not be heard by other committees or be taken directly to the full House. Florida's annual 60-day legislative session ends in early March.

Barry Johnson, president of the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce, which supported the casino legislation, said after the nonvote Friday the issue "was in the ICU (intensive care unit)." He didn't believe the measure would be heard again brought up before the end of the Legislative session nor would it be heard during any special legislative session this summer.

"I think we're looking at next year," Johnson said.

Supporters could also try to take the issue to voters in the future as a constitutional amendment.

The legislation, which would authorize three new nontribal casinos in Florida, had been closely watched by gaming industry leaders in Las Vegas. Las Vegas Sands Corp., Wynn Resorts Ltd., Caesars Entertainment Corp. and MGM Resorts International were linked to potential interest in opening hotel-casino developments in South Florida.

Officials from Malaysia-based Genting Group were the most disappointed by the bill's demise. The company spent more than $400 million to assemble roughly 30 acres along the Biscayne Bay waterfront here, including spending $238 million to acquire the headquarters of the Miami Herald newspaper.

Genting planned to build the $3.8 billion Resorts World Miami, which company officials had boasted would become a dramatic feature along the waterfront of downtown Miami, with 5,200 rooms over four hotels, creating 30,000 permanent jobs, attracting almost 3 million visitors, and producing annual gaming revenues that would equal the Strip.

Jessica Hoppe, the senior vice president of government affairs and general counsel for Resorts World Miami, said Genting would not give up on the idea of Resorts World Miami. The company operates Resorts World Casino New York City at the Aqueduct Race Track in New York City and Resorts World Sentosa, one of two hotel-casinos in Singapore.

"We greatly appreciate the hard work of the destination resorts legislation bill sponsors, as well as all those who support efforts to bring common sense gaming reform and jobs to Florida," Hoppe said. "Resorts World Miami remains committed to the vision of world-class destination resorts in South Florida, and will continue to work with the state legislature and the South Florida community to bring this vision into a reality."

Nevada-based companies, such as Las Vegas Sands, expressed interest in developing a hotel-casino in Miami, but had not bought property for a development.

The company, which had hired Florida-based lobbyists and met with Miami civic and elected leaders, was opposed to the language in the current legislation that had been rewritten late Wednesday.

Andy Abboud, vice president of government relations for Las Vegas Sands, said the company opposed a change that replaced an independent gaming commission with a state Department of Gaming Control under the auspices of the governor and key lawmakers. The new department would issue licenses and control all aspects of gaming in Florida, a state that is not known for clean government.

Abboud said company leaders hoped the bill could be rewritten and improved.

"It's not dead and it could come back next year," Abboud said. "There is always going to be a demand for casinos in Florida. We're very supportive but the bill was moving in the wrong direction."

Expansion of casino gambling in Florida was a matter of fierce debate. The state has five racetrack casinos and eight Indian casinos. The Seminole Indian Tribe operates seven of the casinos, including the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Hollywood and the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Tampa.

Seminole Gaming CEO Jim Allen said tribal leaders opposed any casino expansion bill and hired lobbyists in Tallahassee to fight the measure.

Besides the Seminoles, opponents include some heavy hitters in Sunshine State politics, including the Florida Chamber of Commerce and the Walt Disney Co., which operates theme parks in Orlando. Racetrack operators, including Isle of Capri Casinos, which operates Isle Casino Racing Pompano Park north of Fort Lauderdale, opposed the legislation.

Union Gaming Group principal Bill Lerner said after the bill's demise was understandable given the interests that opposed gaming expansion. But he also thought the debate wasn't over.

"Our sense is that we'll see revisions," Lerner said. "It's not over. This will be a long and windy road."

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