Florida's dalliance with Las Vegas-style casinos is back on, with a state leader saying he'll propose a bill next week.
Garrett Richter, chairman of the Senate Committee on Gaming, said Monday that he favors destination resorts in Broward and Miami-Dade counties, but statewide they have "no chance."
"I happen to believe that this is something that we should have a meaningful discussion on, and the impact relative to jobs and capital investment," he said.
Last week, state House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, and state Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, said gambling would not be on their list of 2014 legislative priorities. Weatherford also repeated his desire to leave any gambling expansion up to the voters via a constitutional amendment.
But Monday afternoon, Richter walked committee members through a slide show and answered questions, although there was so much discussion the meeting had to adjourn before he got all the way through it. One portion that went undiscussed was how a constitutional amendment would come into play.
He acknowledged that approval of a comprehensive gambling bill would be difficult.
"Whether we get it off the ground is a question, but my objective will be to get it off the ground," Richter added. "This is where the pieces of the puzzle aren't square or round, and they'll be a lot more difficult to snap together."
The bill would affect:
• The current table-games portion of an agreement the state has with the Seminole Tribe of Florida. The Tribe pays about $250 million a year to the state for the right to offer blackjack, baccarat and other games.
"We have a sovereign nation that has a fiscal impact on the state, and we don't negotiate that in the state, the governor does. We just ratify it," Richter said. "And they've been a very good partner."
• The formation of a gambling commission, which committee members generally favor. They discussed it to the point of suggesting who would pick the members and how much a chairman would be paid.
"For example, in the past, our public service commission has been a little too close to the people they regulate," said Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater. "So the commission should be feared by the industry, rather than a lap dog of the industry."
• Decoupling, meaning dog tracks, horse tracks and jai-alai frontons would not have to offer those pari-mutuel events in order to maintain a slot license. Richter favors decoupling, but some committee members opposed it, saying the state "was picking winners and losers." Track owners generally favor decoupling, but horse owners, dog owners and jai-alai players do not. They say their livelihood is at stake and that a 2004 Florida casino amendment was passed with the idea of aiding pari-mutuels.
Richter said: "It's about letting businesses decide what their plans look like without mandating racing. That doesn't mean the current venues will in fact abandon racing. They'd make a decision based on the best interest of their businesses."
John Sowinski, of NoCasinos, said Richter's proposal of destination casinos is "setting the outermost edge" to create negotiating room with Weatherford and Gaetz. Sowinski also said he expects very little to get done during this legislative season because his surveys show little desire by Floridians to address gambling.
"There's never been so much time, energy and intellectual capacity spent by Florida legislators on an issue for which there's so little public appetite," he said.
The Senate committee has been active in exploring gambling options, while the House has not. The Senate commissioned a gambling study outlining 12 possible scenarios and held workshops across the state. The House committee on gambling has not met. Two years ago, a bill to bring large casinos to Florida was initiated in the Senate, but it died before reaching the House.
Said Sen. Maria Sachs, D-Delray Beach, "It looks like we're going to have a long discussion, and that's good."
Richter said he will propose the bill Monday. The committee will vote on it Feb. 17.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun