Las Vegas. Atlantic City. Tunica. Biloxi. Florida?
If some Florida state legislators get their wish, Florida may become known for more than just Disney and fun in the sun. Last week, Republican State Senator Dennis Jones told the Miami Herald newspaper that he plans to introduce legislation that would allow for up to five “destination” casino resorts in the state. Nothing is certain at this point, but it appears that gambling expansion is being given serious consideration in the Sunshine State.
Florida already has many legal gambling venues, including full casinos run by the Seminole Tribe, horse and dog racing tracks, and jai alai frontons. Poker has been spread at pari-mutuels for years, but not until 2010 was the game at all a serious endeavor. Up until July 1st, there was a $100 buy-in cap for No Limit Hold’em games at brick-and-mortar card rooms even for games as high as $5/$10. The law changed last year, though, as the cap has been removed and a bevy of games can now be offered at any card room.
Senate President Mike Haridopolos told a Tallahassee radio station, “We’re a big-time gambling state and we need to figure out in general how we’re going to maximize revenue because people are going to gamble.” Haridopolos feels that Jones’ bill has a “50-50” chance of making it through the Senate.
Like anything these days, the arguments in favor of gambling expansion revolve around money. Florida is staring at a $3.5 billion budget deficit and newly elected governor Rick Scott promised to bring the state 700,000 new jobs over the next seven years. The revenue from multiple Las Vegas-scale casinos and the jobs associated with them could be a real shot in the arm.
New gambling revenue could come from the ever-growing online poker playing population in the state. Melanie Brenner, Executive Director of Poker Voters of America, told the Miami Herald that there are about 900,000 online poker players in Florida spending $600,000 per day on the virtual felts. Undoubtedly, some of those dollars would be diverted to the casinos should they be built.
Last Tuesday, the Senate heard a report on the financial success that 13 other states have had after allowing Vegas-style casinos, which seems to have opened the eyes of many legislators. Of particular note was Pennsylvania, one of the most recent converts, which brought in $1 billion revenue, more than New Jersey, home of the famous Atlantic City.
If Jones’ plan were to pass, Florida would accept bids from companies looking to build destination casinos in the state, casinos that would likely include all the trappings of those in Las Vegas – gaming floors, restaurants, hotels, retail outlets, and convention centers. Bidders would have to pay $50 million for the privilege of making a sales pitch and, in the end, four or five projects would be given the green light. Winning companies would be given exclusivity for a 75-mile radius.
Though Governor Scott said that he didn’t want Florida to “become very largely dependent on gaming for revenue,” he recently visited with Las Vegas Sands Chairman and CEO Sheldon Adelson on his way to the Republican Governor’s Association meeting in San Diego. Despite his concerns, Scott has said he is open to the idea of gambling expansion.
Lobbyists from Las Vegas Sands and Wynn Resort Casinos spoke to the Senate committee that heard the gambling report on Tuesday, saying they are willing to invest significant money to bring massive entertainment complexes to Florida. Adelson himself has said his company could commit up to $3 billion in a Miami-based project.
Of course, not everyone is in favor of Jones’ proposal. Pari-mutuel locations and Orlando-based tourist spots such as Disney World would see Las Vegas-style casinos as major competitors for entertainment dollars. There is also the issue of the state’s compact with the Seminole Tribe, which has the exclusive rights to casino operations. Jones doesn’t feel that the state would be at risk of violating any agreements with the Seminoles, as the current contract is up for review in five years and it would take several years for any gambling megaplexes to be built.