Florida awash with lobbyists unwilling to declare truce on casino expansion

florida-casino-moneyCasino operators including Las Vegas Sands have reportedly dispatched 100 lobbyists bearing suitcases full of cash to convince Florida’s politicians to revise the state’s gambling laws. Sands and other operators including Genting have been pressing legislators hard to let them build destination casinos in Florida’s popular tourist areas, but as late as last week, the leaders of the state’s House and Senate said gambling expansion wasn’t on their priority list for 2014.

But on Monday, Garrett Richter, who chairs the state Senate’s gaming committee, vowed to introduce a bill next week that would allow a maximum of two resort casinos in Broward and Miami-Dade counties, exactly where Sands and Genting hope to pitch their tents. Richter hopes to bring his bill up for a vote in the state’s 60-day legislative session that commences March 4. Richter acknowledged that resolving the state’s myriad gaming issues would be difficult, but said it was his goal to get the issue “off the ground.”

Among those issues is the state’s compact with the Seminole tribe, which has the exclusive right to offer house-banked table games like baccarat and blackjack (but not craps or roulette). The compact, which was signed in 2010 by then-Gov. Charlie Crist and requires the tribe to pay the state $250m per year, is set to expire in 2015. Back in 2011, when Sands and Genting began sniffing around the state in earnest, Seminole Gaming CEO Jim Allen pointed out that the state flag depicted “a Seminole lady on there, that’s not somebody from Las Vegas.”

Crist is looking to reclaim the gubernatorial office when the state goes to the polls this November. The man who unseated Crist, current Gov. Rick Scott, flew to Las Vegas to meet with Sands’ chairman Sheldon Adelson just two weeks after winning the 2011 election and returned declaring himself a strong supporter of the destination casino concept (not that it did Sands much good). That might lead one to expect the Seminoles to be firmly in Crist’s corner, but the Seminoles donated $500k to Scott’s campaign last year, the state’s largest single political donation of 2012.

Resort operator Walt Disney Co. has been among the staunchest opponents of casino expansion in the state, donating $1.7m to Florida legislators since 2012. Gambling firms have donated twice that sum and the scale of giving/bribing is expected to ramp up dramatically this year, especially with Adelson’s demonstrated willingness to spend “whatever it takes” to get his way. Dan Adkins, COO of the firm that operates the Mardi Gras Casino in Hallandale Beach, told Bloomberg that the situation resembled “a major food fight.”

One state pol has had enough of this shameless vote buying. On Wednesday, Sen. Gwen Margolis filed a bill that would bar gaming operators from contributing to legislators, including the governor. Margolis, who represents a Miami district in which those casinos hope to take root, said a “sea of cash has been sloshing into the campaign coffers” of the state’s elected officials and “strong measures” were needed to rein in the excesses. The prospects of her Public Confidence in Gaming Act passing in an election year are dubious, so while casinos may not get what they want in 2014, lobbyists and politicians certainly will.