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GOP leader’s gambling bill heads to Florida lawmakers

A massive gambling overhaul bill will hit lawmakers’ desks on the first day of the legislative session, but its sponsor is holding back on exactly what’s in it.

“Everything is on the table and that’s all I’m going to say about it,” House Republican Leader Dana Young of Tampa said of the 100-plus page piece of proposed legislation.

Already, gambling opponents are wary. For years, interests such as Las Vegas Sands Corp. and Genting have wanted in on the gambling action in the Sunshine State.

The proposal is still being drafted but should be filed by Tuesday, when Young said she’ll hold a “media availability” and answer questions from the press.

She said she’s been staying up until 2 a.m. some nights working on the measure.

Young said the idea for the bill came about as she was meeting with GOP caucus members about where they stood on renewing the card game provision in the Seminole Compact, which expires this year.

The compact allows the Seminole Tribe of Florida to offer blackjack at most of its casinos, including the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Tampa, in return for paying more than $200 million yearly into state coffers.

Members “were all over the board” on allowing the tribe to continue to offer blackjack, but one thing was clear, Young said.

“There was no way to have a meaningful discussion in a vacuum,” she said. “We needed to have a vision. This takes the emotion out of it and lays out a comprehensive approach of what (kinds of gambling) we have and asks: What could it look like, what should it look like.”

The bill “gives members something to debate,” Young added. “Hopefully, the consequences of various decisions we could make will become clearer as well.”

John Sowinski, president of Orlando-based No Casinos Inc., said that if lawmakers allow destination casinos, they will “forever change the brand of Florida.”

“It can’t be both a family destination and a gambling destination,” he said. “Las Vegas proved this; they’re back to ‘whatever happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.’”

The Sands specializes in “integrated resorts,” offering rooms, convention space, high-end retail and celebrity chef restaurants along with gambling.

Its founding chairman and CEO, Sheldon G. Adelson, contributed more than $5 million to fight against last year’s unsuccessful initiative to legalize medical marijuana in the state.

His corporation operates signature casinos in Las Vegas; Bethlehem, Pennsylvania; Macau; and Singapore and has long been interested in building a mega-resort in Florida.

“I don’t think it’s a secret what we’re looking for,” Sands lobbyist Nick Iarossi told state lawmakers in 2013.

Young was adamant, however, that the proposal will not expand gambling in the state, something Senate leadership has opposed.

“I think people will be amazed at the overall contraction in our gaming footprint,” she said, but again declined to elaborate.

But Sowinski warned: “You can’t introduce any new forms of gambling and call it a reduction.”

Young is taking on a task that has vexed previous Legislatures.

In 2012, former state senator Ellyn Setnor Bogdanoff pushed a proposal to permit construction of three destination hotel-casinos in South Florida. That effort died.

The next year, lawmakers spent nearly $400,000 on a 700-page study, with a takeaway that expanding gambling would offer “at least a mildly positive impact on the state.”

Sen. Garrett Richter, a Naples Republican who is now the Senate’s president pro tempore, later hit the road with a group of fellow senators. They held public workshops around the state to get input on gambling in Florida.

The Senate’s now-defunct gaming committee rolled out its own more than 450 page rewrite of gambling-related statutes, but the House stopped anything from going forward.

Then-Speaker Will Weatherford, a Wesley Chapel Republican, said he wanted to wait for Gov. Rick Scott to re-negotiate the revenue sharing deal with the Seminoles.

The deal needs to be renewed by July 31 or the Seminoles will then have 90 days to wind down their card game operations, according to the compact.

Not renewing the deal likely would lead to the tribe suing in federal court. Scott nearly reached a seven-year renewal deal with the tribe last year, but both sides couldn’t agree on new dollar amounts going to the state.

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Twitter: @jlrosicaTBO

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