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Vegas Casino Executive: Florida Gambling Bills 'Dissappointing'

Jamie Adams
Wikimedia Commons

TALLAHASSEE (The News Service of Florida) — The bills haven’t had a vote yet, but at least one Las Vegas casino executive is already dissing the gambling plans floated by Florida lawmakers.Andy Abboud, vice president of government relations and community development for Las Vegas Sands Corp, equated the two proposals to "Lucy, Charlie Brown and the football."

Sands and casino giant Genting Group have spent more than two years trying to convince lawmakers to let them open shop in Florida. Others interested in the "destination resorts" include the Florida Panthers, the Hollywood Diplomat and the Fontainebleau in Miami Beach.

The Senate measure (SB 7052), released last week, would allow for two casino resorts—one each in Broward and Miami-Dade counties—and would require operators to spend at least $2 billion on each project over five years, not including the cost of the real estate. Under the Senate plan, casino operators would pay $125 million, refundable to losing bidders, to apply for licenses. Permitted games in addition to slots would include blackjack, craps and roulette, taxed at a rate of 35 percent, the same as South Florida "racinos" currently pay on slot machine revenues. A House proposal (HB 1383), released late Monday night, does not allow for any expansion beyond what the state has now.

"We're disappointed in these bills and confused by the lack of substance," Abboud said Tuesday, the opening day of the 2014 legislative session. "Both the House and the Senate (bills) do not match the integrity of the conversations we have been having with the Legislature both publicly and in private meetings for the last year."

Abboud called the 35 percent tax rate combined with the $2 billion investment "unattainable" and "not sustainable." Casino operators had hoped for a 10 percent tax rate on games.

"The Senate bill will not bring integrated resorts to Florida. It will continue the status quo of leaving everything as it is, and Florida will continue to expand by gaming creep without a comprehensive policy," Abboud said. "We were led to believe that the Legislature was going to set forth a policy that would set the existing infrastructure and control growth in a meaningful way, and we're confused as to why they want to stick with the status quo. …There's nothing in these bills to say 'we want to make Florida a better gaming environment.' None of that is in there."

Abboud later softened his take on the bills, saying he understood that it was the first day of the session and pledging to "work diligently and patiently" with lawmakers over the next 60 days.

Brian Ballard, a lobbyist representing Resorts World Omni, a division of casino giant Genting Group based in Malaysia, called the bills a good starting point.

"It's early stages of a process that's going to evolve," Ballard said. "Is it perfect? No. but it's a good starting place to get the meat and potatoes of this bill started."

The future of the casino resorts—and any gambling legislation at all—rests in the hands of Gov. Rick Scott. Legislative leaders are waiting for Scott to renegotiate a $1 billion, five-year deal with the Seminole Tribe of Florida that sunsets next year. A major expansion of gambling such as destination resorts would have an impact on the amount of revenues the tribe pays to the state. House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, is insisting that Scott must finalize an agreement with the tribe before any legislation is passed. Scott hasn't revealed whether he plans to seal the deal in time for lawmakers to act on it before the session ends on May 2.

And the chairmen of the House and Senate gambling committees are also holding their cards close to their vest regarding casino resorts.

House Select Committee on Gaming Chairman Rob Schenck, who sponsored the 411-page gambling bill, said Tuesday his chamber is focused on regulatory reform. The House plan would close a loophole in state law that allowed regulators to sign off on barrel racing as a pari-mutuel activity.

When asked if the casino resorts would ultimately make it into the House plan, Schenck, R-Spring Hill, said: "As of right now, day one of session, with the governor's office and the compact and all that stuff, it's just too early to give a fair answer to."

Senate Gaming Committee Chairman Garrett Richter was equally circumspect when asked if he was "dug in" over the casinos.

"I'm not going to answer that question now. It's too early in the process. Now that I know here's the Senate and here's the House (plans), why would I turn my card on how dug in or not dug in I'm going to be?" Richter, R-Naples, said.