Miami chamber votes to support expanded gambling, with caveats

South Florida Business Journal by Oscar Pedro Musibay, Reporter

Date: Wednesday, January 4, 2012, 2:55pm EST – Last Modified: Wednesday, January 4, 2012, 4:10pm EST

The Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce, as part of its legislative agenda for the state of Florida in 2012, has tentatively supported the establishment of destination resorts, as long as 75 percent of the workforce is local and the impacted community supports expanding gambling through referendum.

The chamber’s board of directors voted on the issue during a closed-door meeting Wednesday to discuss both its federal and state legislative platforms. The meeting lasted an hour, with the gambling discussion lasting about 20 minutes, prior to the vote, chamber President and CEO Barry E. Johnson said.

He said the approved platform also required parity between destination resorts and the pari-mutuel industry; however, the tax rate and games available to each would not necessarily have to mirror each other. Additionally, local government would have to receive some of the gambling proceeds to “mitigate for any impacts to the surrounding communities and to provide for improvements to public infrastructure” like transportation, according to a copy of the approved language. The current legislation sends all of the new revenue to the state, Johnson said.

The chamber also wants license holders to enter into a “public-private partnership that contributes to the mitigation of the added social and infrastructure impact on the community,” according to the approved language.

He said the exact number of votes tallied was not immediately available, but the ratio was about 3 to 1 in favor.

On Tuesday, Jobs 4 Florida voiced its support for the pending destination resort legislation by letter. Jobs 4 Florida said it represents about 300,000 people through a coalition that includes Associated Builders and Contractors of Florida, the Gold Coast Builders AssociationLatin Builders Association and Engineering Contractors of South Florida.

“The construction industry in Florida has been devastated during this prolonged economic recession,” the group stated in the letter. “Next to tourism and hospitality, construction is one of the biggest economic drivers for Florida’s economy. We cannot continue to ignore the fact that this legislation would allow for people to come off the unemployment line and get back to work.”

The Genting Group, which is seeking a license for a destination resort for its holdings in downtown Miami, embraced the result of the vote.

“Today’s Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce decision to support regulated destination resorts demonstrates the strong consensus that exists among business and civic leaders who recognize the benefits these projects will bring to our community,” said Christian Goode, president of Resorts World Miami, in a statement. “Local residents and small businesses understand that destination resorts will result in billions of dollars in new investment, millions of new tourists annually, tens of thousands of new jobs, and much-needed relief for businesses in Miami and across the state. We look forward to collaborating with the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce and other stakeholders, residents and businesses as Resorts World Miami takes shape.”

Sen. Ellyn Bogdanoff, R-Fort Lauderdale, co-sponsor of a bill designed to attract large, Las Vegas-style resorts to Florida, is also attempting to address some of the same issues the chamber raised. She is working on a “strike-all amendment” that would replace her original legislation with new language. Some possible features of the new bill include allowing pari-mutuels that invest $100 million to add more games, lowering the slot machine tax and requiring a local referendum on expanded gambling.

The original gambling bill required destination resorts to have at least $2 billion in investment, plus pay a 10 percent tax on revenue from slot machines, a far cry from the 35 percent tax pari-mutuels currently pay.

The suggested revisions Bogdanoff sent to some legislators include a flat rate of 18 percent on all slots.

The Senate Committee on Regulated Industries meets Jan. 9. A bill that is detrimental to pari-mutuels’ competitiveness in comparison to destination resorts is a “non-starter,” Democrats have said.

Nick Iarossi, a lobbyist for Las Vegas Sands Corp. (NYSE: LVS) and a government consultant with Capital Consulting in Tallahassee, said the Jan. 9 vote is important because if the 10-member committee votes the bill down, it’s dead. So, the vote will be closely monitored by a lot of parties.

Voters would also have to approve allowing pari-mutuels to expand the games they offer to include roulette and other Las Vegas-style games.

Regardless of the details in the final bill, the road will be rough for supporters of expanded gambling.

Miami Beach officials voted against expanding what is already available.

Additionally, Miami-Dade County is asking that destination gambling resort legislation include a section that would mandate a 12- to 18-month local government review process.

At a recent Beacon Council workshop, CEO Frank Nero called for a delay in the legislation to give everyone more time to consider the issue.

Other powerful business groups, including the Florida Chamber of Commerce, Florida Retail Federation and Florida Attractions Associationalso oppose destination resorts, saying they will hurt the state’s image and existing development efforts.

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