New bill would allow Vegas-style gambling off reservations

01/07/11 Kate Bradshaw
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This week, Governor Rick Scott hinted at expanding Casino gambling in Florida. But this morning he all but denied it. A Republican state senator from Pinellas plans to introduce legislation that would pave the way for new Las Vegas style casino resorts.

State Senator Dennis Jones represents the Pinellas town of Seminole. But he’s drafting legislation with which the Seminole Native American tribe might not be happy. Jones said the bill would serve as a litmus on the feasibility of legalized gambling.

"It really just is an opportunity under the direction of, with the help of the Senate president to at least put the issue out on the table to see if destination gaming is something that would be good for Florida. It certainly creates a tremendous amount of jobs. A minimum of 5,000 jobs per destination, and of course tax dollars in excess of $500 million. So, I think that the time has come where we at least put it on the table for discussion and that's what I'm attempting to do."

Jones, who is chair of the Regulated Industries Committee, said not to expect Vegas to crop up if his bill passes.

"These would be major destinations. When we say casinos, I think you need to use the word destination because gaming is only 5 to 10 percent of the destination. You're looking at high end shops, you're looking at theater, you're looking at 4 star restaurants, you're looking at high-end retail, convention centers. There, again, the gaming is really 5 to 10 percent of the destination and they would be limited, based on mileage, is the way in my legislation we would envision it. Maybe only one every 75 or 100 miles apart. Which would mean there would be a maximum of 4 or 5 destinations in the entire state of Florida should they meet the criteria and the legislation pass."

Speaking to reporters after the Pinellas County Legislative Delegation met in Seminole this morning, he said allowing what he calls “destination gaming” would have a broader economic impact than permitting cities to construct Las Vegas-style strips.

"I think it's a different concept, if we go to Las Vegas Strip gaming, you're looking at gaming facility after gaming facility in the same part of the community. If we go to destination gaming you're looking at the abilities for convention centers. Tremendous facilities where you can go to high end theaters like Las Vegas or New York City. Four star restaurants where you're employing at least people per location with high end paying jobs so that it's not just gaming it's a destination where we can truly attract people from South America, Central America, and Europeans, to increase our tourism trade."

The Seminole Tribe operates a handful of casinos throughout the state, and has an exclusivity compact to do so. In exchange, they give the state $150 million a year out of casino profits. If the state were to break the agreement, the Seminoles cut off that revenue stream. Jones said he’s not too worried about the lost money, given the timing of the agreement.

"We have a 20 year agreement with the Seminole Indians with a 5 year look back which means in 5 years we'll evaluate where we are and they're compact right now will yield the state about a $150 million a year. That compact would stay in place unless the provisions of the compact were broken."

He said if so-called destination gaming were approved, developers could build the attractions that would surround a casino, then begin gambling operations after the five-year agreement expires.

"But, truly, when you develop a destination like this, it would take well over 5 years to build it out so, quite frankly, we will already be in the 5 year review with the Seminole compact anyway, and then we can look at the compact either regionally or statewide as a whole, make those decisions at that time, but there again, you'd be trading $150 million for $500 million per location."

Yesterday the St. Pete Times and Miami Herald reported that Governor Rick Scott was open to the idea of destination casinos, though today he said he hasn’t taken a position on the issue. During his campaign he had said he didn’t want state revenues to be tied to gaming. Jones said he has not spoken with the governor about legalized casinos.

"I have never talked to Governor Scott on this issue. I've only talked to him twice in my life. I've only seen him 4 times, once was last week at his inauguration. We're going to put it on the table for discussion. We'll see in this new administration when we're looking for jobs, we're looking to increase tourism, we're looking to basically be a leader in the country and I feel that destination gaming certainly is worthy of discussion at this time."

Jones said gambling – or gaming, as he calls it – is nothing new in Florida.

"Since the 1920's or 30's I believe we have had parimutuels which are horses, j'ai alai, and dogs, and harness racing. We have cruises to nowhere which we receive no tax money in the state. We have the Seminole compact, we have lottery locations in over 13,000 locations where you can buy a $1 scratch off ticket or a $50 scratch off ticket. You have internet gaming, you have poker at most all of the parimutuel facilities. Gaming is a large portion of Florida's culture."

Senator Jones said he hopes to finalize the draft bill next week, after which he plans to formally file it. Critics of the proposal say it’s a quick fix that won’t work in the long run, and that it relies too heavily on an addictive practice known to destroy lives.

Previous WMNF coverage of casinos

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