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Lawmakers still seeking answers on future of gambling in Florida

TALLAHASSEE — Despite a 708-page study and two public workshops under their belts, state senators haven’t yet reached a ‘eureka’ moment over the future of gambling in Florida, according to the Senate’s Gaming committee chair.

“It’s like succotash,” said Sen. Garrett Richter, R-Naples — they’ve heard a little bit of everything.

“I don’t have any sense that the committee has developed, at this point, any united front on a solution,” he told reporters on Monday after the latest committee meeting.

“I never thought that the job was going to be easy,” he added. “I never thought the solution was going to jump up and be obvious, and I think that this committee is going to have to work hard … It is going to be a challenge.”

After years of doing nothing and letting the “Internet cafe” problem blow up in their faces, lawmakers now are considering a plethora of options, including allowing Las Vegas-style destination casino-resorts.

A major gambling bill could come out of the 2014 legislative session, which starts in March.

Earlier this year, a multistate illegal gambling investigation resulted in dozens of arrests and the resignation of Lt. Gov. Jennifer Carroll. Before her election, Carroll had provided public-relations representation to the company at the center of the probe. She was not accused of wrongdoing.

A few weeks later, the state banned the strip-mall casinos known as Internet cafes. Florida now prohibits any “device or system or network of devices” that plays like a slot machine, which was already illegal.

Richter also said he wasn’t changing the format of recent public workshops, even after reports that a casino lobbyist had organized a busload of seniors to speak in favor of gambling.

“My takeaway is that we had extensive public feedback,” Richter said. “So far, I’ve found the two public meetings we’ve had so far to be productive, to be meaningful, to be informative. So no, I wouldn’t venture to change that.”

Two more workshops are scheduled for Jacksonville and Pensacola.

Last week, Orlando-based No Casinos Inc. outed the Las Vegas Sands Corp., revealing that one of the company’s Florida lobbyists “orchestrated” the busload of Tampa seniors to speak at last week’s workshop in Lakeland.

Another of the Sands’ registered lobbyists, Nick Iarossi, told committee members that the casino giant’s specialty is “integrated resorts,” offering rooms, convention space, high-end retail and celebrity chef restaurants.

The Sands already operates signature casinos in Las Vegas, Bethlehem, Pa., Macau and Singapore, and has long been interested in building a mega-resort in Florida.

A bill died in the Legislature last year that would have allowed three new destination hotel-casinos in South Florida.

“I don’t think it’s a secret what we’re looking for,” Iarossi told lawmakers.

Sen. Maria Sachs, a South Florida Democrat and vice chair of the panel, asked Iarossi whether new casinos would “cannibalize” existing small businesses.

“I think every one of us here has been to Atlantic City or Las Vegas,” she said. “I don’t see many small ma-and-pa pasta stores close by the huge, iconic casinos.”

Iarossi used Tampa as an example, with its Hard Rock Hotel & Casino, operated by the Seminole Tribe, which offers Vegas-style slots and card games.

“We haven’t seen small restaurants going out of business there,” he said. Instead, “we’ve seen an influx of businesses being created.”

But Bill Lupfer, president of the Florida Attractions Association, warned about damaging the state’s “priceless” family-friendly brand.

“Not one of us has a dream for our child to grow up to be a blackjack dealer or a pit boss,” he said.

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