Casino bill is dealt a blow, but supporters will fight on

Posted: February 12, 2012

States tend to mull over gambling bills for years.

It took 15 years for slot-machine gambling to be green-lighted in Pennsylvania, with table games added 61/2 years later. Last year, Massachusetts approved up to three destination casino resorts after a decades-long debate.

The Florida Legislature debated the expansion of gambling in 2011. The idea had additional momentum going into this year's session because of Genting Corp.'s huge investment.

But Feb. 3, the brakes were applied when a House subcommittee postponed a vote on the controversial bill to add three lavish casino resorts in South Florida. The panel has no more scheduled meetings between now and March 9, the end of the legislative session. However, the Senate leader plans to plow ahead on the version of the bill in his chamber.

The measure's chances? "Not likely this year, but very good over the next five years," said gambling analyst Andrew Zarnett of Deutche Bank AG. "You have neighboring states with gaming, so people are car-shopping for a casino. The thought is, 'Why not have it, too?' and there is a desperate need for deficit funding in various states."

Malaysia-based Genting and Las Vegas Sands Corp., which want a presence in Florida, are regrouping. Neither is backing away from trying to crack the elusive South Florida market.

Genting went all in last year, when it bought $500 million worth of real estate to build its proposed megacasino, Resorts World Miami.

"We greatly appreciate the hard work of the destination-resorts legislation bill sponsors, as well as all those who support efforts to bring commonsense gaming reform and jobs to Florida," Genting's general counsel, Jessica Hoppe, said after the House Business and Consumer Affairs Subcommittee stalled the bill. "We will continue to work . . . to bring this vision into a reality."

Andy Abboud, vice president of government relations for Las Vegas Sands, who has worked on the issue the last three years, said the company "will continue to monitor the situation and educate legislators and the public about the benefits of destination resorts."

"Just because the Legislature failed to act, our polling shows people want destination resorts," Abboud said Tuesday. "You never give up on a market as good as Florida."

Opponents are elated.

The House's decision "is a decision to let what happens in Vegas stay in Vegas and frees up the Florida Legislature to address critical issues facing our state," said Mark Wilson, chief executive officer of the Florida Chamber of Commerce.

But the chamber said the war was far from over.

Associated Industries of Florida, which supports casino resorts and the jobs it believes they would create, urged the state Senate to move forward on its bill.

And there remains the possibility the issue could end up on Florida's November ballot as a referendum.

"Determining whether or not a jurisdiction approves gaming is almost futile, because most jurisdictions go through many iterations before legislators finally" make a decision, said analyst Zarnett.

"It was the same with Pennsylvania . . . and was clearly the case with Massachusetts."


Contact staff writer Suzette Parmley at 215-854-2594 or sparmley@phillynews.com.

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