Florida voters won't decide fate of big casinos
TALLAHASSEE — Florida's gambling future, including the fate of its horse and dog tracks, Internet cafes and tribal-run casinos, appears likely to be decided by the Republican-controlled Legislature. After spending nearly $1 million on an effort to let voters decide what kind of gambling to allow, a major casino developer has decided to work with legislators over the next two years. Companies affiliated with Genting, the Malaysian gambling powerhouse, had poured money this year into a political committee that hired consultants, lawyers and a company known for collecting voter signatures for constitutional amendments. But Genting executives this week met with legislative leaders to tell them they would not move forward on the amendment to allow casino gambling.Instead they want to see what emerges from a promised comprehensive look at gambling to be launched by GOP leaders. "Hopefully something will come from that that makes sense," said Brian Ballard, a Tallahassee lobbyist who represents a Genting subsidiary. "We want to work with them. We want it to be a collaborative process." Genting has already spent nearly a half-billion dollars to acquire real estate in downtown Miami for a proposed mega resort. But efforts to get state legislators to approve a bill to allow major casinos in South Florida have failed during the past two years. This past year there was a push for legislation that would have granted casino licenses to developers who pledged to spend at least $2 billion on a resort. It was one of the most heavily lobbied bills of the 2012 session and drew opposition from such heavyweights as the Florida Chamber of Commerce and Disney. After the last legislative defeat, Genting began considering whether to ask voters to approve casino gambling. Florida voters three times in the past have rejected constitutional amendments to allow casino gambling. But voters approved a measure in 2004 to give South Florida counties the ability to decide whether to add slot machines to existing dog and horse tracks. Since that vote, gambling has expanded in the state. Voters in both Miami-Dade and Broward counties voted in favor of adding slots to local tracks and the state reached deals that have allowed casinos owned by the Seminole Tribe of Florida to expand. New Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, has established a stand-alone legislative committee to look at gambling issues over the next two years. Sen. Garrett Richter, R-Naples and chairman of the new committee, said he plans to hire a firm to do an extensive study of gambling in the state and the potential impact of any changes. Richter said his goal is to come up with something that will "minimize any regrets" with whatever lawmakers decide. Richter also said it is likely the committee will hold hearings on gambling in several locations around the state.