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Politics

Stakes Growing as Gambling Bill Approaches First Vote

January 4, 2012 - 6:00pm

Opponents and proponent of bills that would allow mega-casinos in South Florida and establish a statewide gaming commission aren't ready to fold with the approach of the first do-or-die committee vote.

On Thursday, representatives from a number of construction-based groups gathered at a Tallahassee employment center to highlight their support for the revamped bills they say means long-needed work for those in their industry.

See video here.

Within moments of the conclusion of the late morning event, the Florida Chamber of Commerce, one of the leading opponents of the gaming bills, quickly denounced the construction industry representatives' move as a publicity stunt.

If casino gambling is such a good job creator, then why have leading policymakers called the out-of-state and foreign casino operators' claims of 100,000 jobs over the top? Chamber President Mark Wilson asked in a release.

If you turn Florida into the next Las Vegas, Florida will lose jobs just like Atlantic City did when mega-casinos were introduced there.

Construction industry backers say legislators cant afford to say no to the bills that would allow at least three mega-casinos, each requiring $2 billion in construction, when construction workers as a group surpass the states overall 10 percent unemployment rate.

If were out of work, then Florida is just not working, said Carol Bowen, vice president of government affairs, Associated Builders and Contractors Florida East Coast Chapter.

The construction groups placed the potential employment from building the casinos in the tens of thousands.

The Senate gaming bill SB 710, which is being revamped by sponsor Sen. Ellyn Bodganoff, R-Fort Lauderdale, and SB 712 also by Bogdanoff, are scheduled to return before the Senate Regulated Industries Committee on Monday afternoon, a day before the regular 60-day session gets underway.

The committee has held two hearings on the bill and committee Chairman Sen. Dennis Jones, R-Seminole, has told Miami Today hed like to see a vote taken by the committee.

"Either way, I think we need to take care of it then, Jones told Miami Today.

Bogdanoff has been revising SB 710 and its House companion HB 478, sponsored by Rep. Erik Fresen, R-Miami.

The bill initially proposed establishing a statewide gaming commission and allowing the construction of three mega-casinos that would be required to pay 10 percent of revenue to the state.

The bill has received criticism from members of the committee for failing to tackle growing Internet cafe businesses, where sweepstakes are offered as substitutes for cash prizes, and complaints from existing pari-mutuel operators that pay 35 percent of their revenue to the state.

Under Bogdanoff's draft revision, the bill would:

  • Subject casinos in Miami-Dade and Broward counties to voter approval.
  • Seek to close the 1,000 Internet cafes that have opened with little regulation throughout the state by prohibiting simulated gambling devices and simulated gambling displays that are used to offer sweepstake, bingo, raffle or other prizes instead of cash.
  • Allow pari-mutuel facilities in Florida to offer slot machines and table games, if approved by county voters. The pari-mutuel would also have to invest at least $100 million on the facility within three years of receiving a limited gaming license.
  • Reduce the tax rate on slot machine revenue at pari-mutuels from 35 percent to 18 percent.
  • Prohibit new jai alai frontons and racetracks from opening after July 1. The state would have to buy back existing but dormant permits that have been approved.
  • Prohibit barrel racing at all but the Gretna Racing facility west of Tallahassee, where the licensed races started in December. Even there, by July 2013 the voters of Gadsden County would have to agree to keep the races.
  • Create a seven-member Florida Gaming Commission, based in Leon County, with members paid $125,000 a year. The chair would receive $135,000. Appointed by the governor, each member would serve four-year terms. To create staggered terms, three members of the first board would serve two-year terms.
  • The changes would, by omission, maintain the Florida lottery as a separate entity. Bogdanoff had previously suggested moving the department under the umbrella of the commission.

At the Tallahassee construction industry press conference on Thursday, proponents said if legislators arent willing to back the bill, they should at least let voters decide.

People in our industry are looking for something. They dont want to collect unemployment, said Miguel Fuentes of Florida Carpenters Regional Council. They want to be working. They want to be constructive, productive, and contributing to their communities.

Joining ABC and the carpenters were: the Florida Retired Workers Association, UNITE HERE Local 355; the Florida Concrete and Product Association; the Florida Transportation Builders Association; and individual owners of a limousine company and a restaurant.

Gary Reifert, owner of Hollywood Limousine and a construction cleaning industry, has seen his company go from 27 employees in the height of the housing boom to three part-time workers.

I think the thing that bothers me the most is, every time something comes up like this, everybody says those are not high-paying jobs, high-tech jobs, but not everybody qualifies for high-tech jobs and we need to put these people back to work.

Wilson, calling the gaming bill a bad bet for Florida, questioned the jobs claim. He noted that Nevadas unemployment stood at 13 percent in November, the latest number available, 3 points higher than in Florida.

Lets not lose sight that out-of-state casinos need Florida -- Florida doesnt need casinos, Wilson stated in the release. Bottom line, what happens in Vegas should stay in Vegas.

Reach Jim Turner at jturner@sunshinestatenews.com or (772) 215-9889.

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