As legislators joust over 1 or 2 South Florida casinos, Miami leaders deliver warnings

Florida lawmakers continued to move forward on gambling legislation Thursday as the Senate revived its plan to bring a second casino to South Florida and rejected the House’s suggestion that horse and dog tracks get voter approval before they end live racing.

The offer came on the third day of gambling negotiations as the lawmakers debate whether to expand slot machines in South Florida and across the state or renew the compact with the Seminole Tribe, which could produce as much as $300 million in annual revenue.

House gambling negotiators broke years of impasse Wednesday and agreed to open the door for competitive bids for a slots casino based in Miami-Dade County, rejecting a Senate plan that would have allowed two casinos, one each in Miami-Dade and Broward. But the Senate countered Thursday, proposing two casinos again but making concessions to the Seminole Tribe.

Although most of the focus of the recent negotiations has been on expanding slot machines in South Florida and the eight counties where voters have approved slot machines at their pari-mutuels, the Senate showed it was ready to deal with the Seminole Tribe, which is determined to protect its prime Hard Rock casino in Tampa from competition.

Both the House and Senate have agreed to allow the tribe to add craps and roulette to the its casino games, but the Senate backed off a requirement that the tribe guarantee $3 billion in payments in exchange for the exclusive operation of craps and roulette in Florida.


Under the proposed Senate bill, the Seminole Tribe would be able to add craps and roulette to their casinos.

Miami Herald file photo

The shift opens the door for the tribe to negotiate a sliding scale of payments to the state, based on its revenues in light of what the Senate hopes will be an expansion of gambling at pari-mutuels and in South Florida, and an increase in the tribe’s competition.

“I’m excited about the direction this is going,” said Rep. Jose Felix Diaz, R-Miami, He and Sen. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, are the chief negotiators.

According to the Florida House, there are 149 lobbyists registered on the pending bills, SB 8 and HB 7037, including lobbyists for the two companies considered most interested in a Miami casino, Resorts World Miami, owned by Malaysian operator Genting, and the owners of the Fontainebleau Hotel in Miami Beach.

As Galvano and Diaz defended the new casino language and remained optimistic a compromise could be reached before the session ends May 5, opposition increased from Miami-Dade County leaders.

Mayor Carlos Gimenez arrived in Tallahassee to urge legislators to give county voters a say before approving any new casinos and also asked that the county be allowed to keep a larger share of the gaming revenues to compensate for the increased strain a resort casino could have on traffic and safety.

“There’s a good chance they don’t come to an agreement,” Gimenez told the Herald/Times between meetings. “But if anything were to pass, I’ve indicated to both Rep. Diaz and Sen. Galvano that I believe there has to be a referendum by the people of Miami-Dade.”


Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez

Miami Herald file photo

He said the revenue sharing under the current slot machine statute is not sufficient to meet the community’s needs — which ranges from 1.5 percent to 2.5 percent of revenues at existing slots casinos.

“They need more revenue in the city and the county to take care of the security and infrastructure needs in order to make these facilities work,” he said.

Galvano said he will consider giving the local governments a percentage of revenue share, just as the state did with the compact with the Seminole Tribe and “that’s not off the table.”

The Miami Beach City Commission unanimously adopted a resolution Wednesday opposing a casino on the beach, and Commissioner Ricky Arriola warned Thursday that there is no guarantee that the city would approve a permit for a casino.

“We simply just don’t have the infrastructure to handle a large scale casino,” he said. “We’re already choking with traffic.”

The Fontainebleau has indicated that it is interested in pursuing a slot license if lawmakers were to approve an additional one in Miami-Dade County. Under the Senate proposal, which has been agreed to in principle by House negotiators, any new slots licenses would go through a competitive bidding process and receive approval from the Florida Division of Pari-Mutuel Wagering.

Arriola said that while Miami Beach voters oppose bringing a casino to the beach, “anything can happen.”

“Money talks,” he said. “So what will happen is the casino industry will lobby the commissioners very hard, and I hope that my commissioners will stand firm and not allow a casino in Miami Beach.”

Mike Fernandez, founder of MBF Healthcare Partners in Coral Gables, added his voice to that of developer Armando Codina and other business leaders opposed to the plan. He told the Herald/Times that he “will do all I can to prevent this from happening.”

“The South Florida community has made a tremendous cultural and financial contribution towards the creation of a solid foundation for our future,” he said. “Gambling and the elements it attracts will damage the technological, financial, entrepreneurial and public safety advances made during the last 20 years.”

Galvano defended the addition of two casinos as the logical next step for South Florida in the face of mounting legal challenges that have eroded the state’s gambling law and opened the door to unfettered competition that will end the compact with the Seminole Tribe. That compact currently provides the state with $120 million in annual revenue.

He referred again to the case pending before the courts relating to a small horse track in Gadsden County in which the court could declare that counties can add slot machines simply by passing a local referendum — essentially taking it out of the hands of the Legislature.

That “could change the entire landscape if we leave here without having set some parameters,” he said.

Galvano said the Legislature must act to tighten the loopholes that have emerged because of changing technology and use the push for expanding gambling to bring the state more revenue to replace what may be lost from the Seminole Tribe.

“I believe there is an opportunity to increase revenues, especially if we’re going to see some diminution from the Seminole Tribe,” he said.

He said he was not prepared to back off the Senate position of allowing competitive bids for two South Florida casinos, one each in Miami-Dade and Broward counties.

“There’s the economic development that it brings with it,” Galvano said, noting that the casino is often the “loss leader” to bring in revenues from ancillary services from retail and entertainment.

Although Diaz, the Miami-Dade delegation chairman, supports the addition of a new casino in the county, it is not a position universally held by other South Florida lawmakers.

“Anything that allows a casino in downtown Miami — or probably anywhere — is a non-starter for me,” said Sen. Jose Javier Rodriguez, D-Miami. “For the six senators representing Miami-Dade, I don’t think there’s an appetite for a casino license.”

Rep. Carlos Trujillo, R-Miami, said he also opposes any gambling bill that opens the door to expanded gambling. “I’ve never been in favor of gaming,” he said. “I’m not in favor of any expansion really.”