Disney Said to Be Dishing Big Bucks in Tallahassee, Preparing for Destination Casino Fight
Around the State
Walt Disney World officials apparently are pumping vast sums of money into a new campaign to kill enabling legislation for destination-resort casinos in 2014. And they're doing it by enlisting the services of a small army of traditional lobbyist firms, the Florida Chamber of Commerce and No Casinos Inc.
"Right now I couldn't tell you exactly how much money Disney is spreading around," said Nick Iarossi, chief lobbyist for Las Vegas Sands in Tallahassee, "but I know it's considerable. And I know there is a widespread belief in Tallahassee that they are using No Casinos as a front."
As part of that study, Spectrum issued a report in July concluding, among other things, that Florida’s family-friendly tourism brand could be damaged if casinos are allowed in the state.
Disney isn't talking. But it apparently fattened its war chest, Iarossi said, with the idea that this is the year, this is the time, to go all out in opposing integrated resort casinos in Florida.
"For Disney, it's all about maintaining the status quo, and the status quo is unacceptable," he said. "Florida needs to be looking at well-regulated markets with an independent gaming commission. We have a lot of gambling already in Florida, and none of it is regulated. Las Vegas, Atlantic City, Pennsylvania, Macau, they all do it right."
The buzz around the capital is that No Casinos is the unlikely go-between this year, the principal water carrier for Disney in its dealings with the Florida Legislature, and it's getting paid well to do the job. But John Sowinski, president of No Casinos, categorically denied that his organization has suddenly become Disney's political arm.
"The Genting and Sands lobbyists in Tallahassee are trying to sell the idea that we're a front group for Disney," Sowinski told Sunshine State News. "They need to run that theory by the coalition that's been supporting our cause for years, including the Restaurant & Lodging Association, the Florida Chamber, the retailers, the attractions associations, the Florida Sheriff's Association ... Our point is that (the expansion of gambling) is the wrong economic policy and the wrong social policy for the state."
Said Sowinski, "I don't get it. Do they assume that they are the only people who get to make their case to the Legislature and we're not allowed to? That's arrogance."
Disney did not reply to repeated SSN phone calls or requests to answer emailed questions.
Robert M Jarvis, law professor at Nova Southeastern University Law Center, asked, "Why would anyone be surprised that Disney is scared to death? Of course they're going to double down on their efforts to keep casinos out. Anything that gives the consumer another option for their disposable dollar is a threat to them. The disposable dollar is the vested stake they have in preventing gambling in Florida. Money consumers spend in casinos isn't going to their theme parks.
"But," said Jarvis in a telephone interview, "they'e been trying for years, and haven't succeeded yet in keeping gambling out. Gambling is all over the place. Even in Central Florida, you've got cruise ships going in and out of Tampa on one side and Canaveral on the other, you've got the Hard Rock with its $1 billion in annual revenue in Tampa, you've got the Florida Lottery everywhere. Actually, every time anything new opens -- even the Rays going into Tampa -- it's a threat to Disney."
Gravity is working against Disney, Jarvis said. And he predicted an epiphany just around the corner. "At some point, the Disney people are going to say, 'Wait a minute! We can't beat 'em, so let's join 'em.'"
Besides, he said, it's all going to be moot when one day we can pull out our Smart Phones, dial up Bally's or Caesar's, and play for real on a street corner or in a restaurant -- anywhere. No travel needed.
Sands' lobbyist Iarossi still maintains the behemoth entertainment conglomerate is looking at the landscape with failing eyesight. “I can understand Disney doesn't want the competition," he said, "but competition increases out-of-state visitation and creates jobs, which is in the best interests of the people of Florida."
In 2011, the push for destination casino-resorts was almost there. Legislation to permit a limited number of them cleared a Florida Senate Committee. But it went no further. In 2012, Disney gave legislative candidates more than $2.5 million to say no to casinos. This year leadership in the House and Senate declared a moratorium on the issue until the holistic review of gambling in the state is complete. But, in 2014, election year or not, gaming -- including casino resorts -- is expected to dominate the legislative session.
No Casinos' Sowinski further explained why his organization had re-aimed its focus for the coming fight.
"Historically, No Casinos has opposed ballot initiatives to legalize casinos because that's where the question was being posed -- at the ballot box. Now that it is being posed to the Legislature," he said, "we're making our case in Tallahassee and throughout Florida."
Sowinski points to Florida's prohibition of Internet cafes in 2013 as an example that No Casinos can win the battles it fights. "The toothpaste can be put back in the tube."
But the Internet cafe ban is already being challenged in court, including one lawsuit claiming it applies to every computer in the state.
Iarossi said he wouldn't be surprised to see the Legislature pass a glitch bill next year to address flaws in the Internet cafe ban.
Reach Nancy Smith at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 228-282-2423.