The sponsors of Florida casino legislation tested their message at a private focus group conducted by national pollster Frank Luntz over the weekend, Sunshine State News has learned.
The focus group, convened Saturday in Miami, heard from state Rep. Erik Fresen, R-Miami, and Sen. Ellyn Bogdanoff, R-Fort Lauderdale. The group also viewed video presentations showing the Genting Group's plans to build the "world's largest casino."
Up to 35 local residents participated in the exercise, which one participant described as a promotion for the project.
"All speeches were pro-gambling," said a Miami resident who spoke on condition of anonymity. "At one point, we were asked how we felt about a foreign investor."
The audience was also queried about Miami becoming the "New Singapore, as if that were a good thing," the participant related.
A spokeswoman for the Malaysia-based Genting Group said the Luntz session was paid for by Associated Industries of Florida, a strong supporter of the casino legislation. Neither Luntz nor AIF responded to Sunshine State News' requests for comment.
Fresen, who said he received a "last-minute" invitation from an AIF representative to speak to the focus group, called the Luntz session "mutually informative."
"I speak to every outlet I can. My goal is to create a high-standard, transparent gaming commission as we move forward as a gaming state," Fresen said.
As for the audience, the unnamed participant said there was spirited debate about the relative value of adding 10,000 or more low-paying service jobs at a casino.
The focus group member came away with the impression that Luntz's program was conducted "for a specific casino company and that the lawmakers were there at the behest of that company."
Like Fresen, Bogdanoff characterized her participation as "last-minute" and called the focus group an "intimate dialogue."
The senator said the group "seemed to get" her call for stronger regulation and more robust competition in gaming, as proposed in House Bill 487.
But concerns were voiced about the size of the casino projects that would be permitted. Bogdanoff said that under HB 487, the ultimate decision would rest with local authorities.
Bogdanoff said she had no reservations about speaking to the Luntz group.
"I saw it as an opportunity to talk and spread the message," she said, adding "[Legislators] have a tendency to get disconnected from what the people are thinking."
Though Fresen and Bogdanoff said they were not told who paid for Luntz's services, Bogdanoff said it didn't matter.
"No one told me what to say," she noted.
As of Monday afternoon, the lawmakers said they had received no results or feedback from Luntz.
Even if public officials obtain nothing of monetary value, they must scrupulously avoid any hint of a conflict, says Florida Atlantic University political science professor Kevin Wagner.
"Members of the Legislature should always appear to be above board, not favoring one party or another," Wagner said.
The unnamed focus group participant said Luntz agreed to pay $150 to each member of the audience. But when the event concluded, staffers announced they only had $100 bills.
"They said, 'We'll give you $100 and mail you the $50 later,'" the participant recalled.
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