TALLAHASSEE, Florida (Reuters) - A bill that would have ushered in the largest gambling expansion in Florida history was withdrawn by its legislative sponsor on Friday, killing for now the prospect of allowing up to three mega-resort casinos in the Miami and Fort Lauderdale area.
The bill, which proponents said could lead to 100,000 new jobs for the state, faced a probable defeat at its first stop - the House Business and Consumer Affairs Subcommittee. Its sponsor, Miami Republican Representative Erik Fresen, asked that the bill be withdrawn from consideration by the panel at its last scheduled session of the year.
Rules in the Florida House of Representatives prohibit the chamber from taking further action on a bill that has failed to pass at least one committee, so the measure is dead for 2012, House Rules Chairman Gary Aubuchon said after the meeting adjourned.
“Today’s action on the casino gambling bill is a resounding victory for those of us who have opposed this assault on Florida’s family-friendly economy,” Aubuchon said.
Florida has been hard-hit by the housing crash and its unemployment rate, while declining, is still well above average at 9.9 percent. The Legislature is struggling to fill a $1 billion revenue gap, but lawmakers disagree whether casinos would bring in new money or cannibalize existing tourism revenues.
The proposal would have created a state gaming commission to license up to three southeast Florida casinos whose owners invest at least $2 billion apiece in resort complexes.
Successful applicants would have paid a $50 million one-time license fee, with an annual renewal fee of $2 million. They would also have been subject to a 10 percent tax on gross gambling revenues.
Florida law now bars casinos from expanding beyond those operated by the Seminole Indian tribe and selected pari-mutuel racetracks and jai alai courts known as “racinos.”
The Senate version of the proposal, which passed its first committee stop but faced opposition, would have allowed the pari-mutuels to operate full-fledged casino games at the same tax rates levied against the larger resort casinos.
Gambling giants such as the Las Vegas Sands Corp had urged lawmakers to allow full casino gambling at so-called “destination resorts” in Florida since the Seminoles won their right to offer blackjack, baccarat and other banked card games more than two years ago.
Malaysia-based Genting Berhad, one of the biggest international casino developers, announced in May it was buying a 14-acre (5.7 hectare) waterfront property in downtown Miami for $236 million and would build a mega-resort on the site, which currently houses the Miami Herald newspaper.
Genting’s Resorts World unit issued a statement on Friday thanking the bill’s sponsors and praising “all those who support efforts to bring common sense gaming reform and jobs to Florida.”
“Resorts World Miami remains committed to the vision of world-class destination resorts in South Florida, and will continue to work with the state Legislature and the South Florida community to bring this vision into a reality,” the company said.
Fresen acknowledged the bill was dead for the current legislative session and said he wanted to withdraw it in order “to continue the conversation outside of the hyperbole.”
The proposal has split the business community in Florida, where tourism accounts for one third of the economy.
The Associated Industries of Florida said the construction and operation of three casino resorts in Miami-Dade and Broward counties would have created jobs for nearly 100,000 Floridians, helping move almost 10 percent of the state’s jobless off the unemployment rolls.
“Destination resorts will also bring a minimum $6 billion in up-front, private-sector investment that will help jump-start our economy,” the group said in a statement.
The Chamber of Commerce and Walt Disney World, a major tourism draw, opposed the measure and said it would threaten Florida’s family-friendly image.
The Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association said it would have hurt locally operated hotels and eating establishments. The group’s chief executive, Carol Dover, cited the example of Atlantic City, New Jersey, where she said the entry of casino resorts forced nearby hotels and restaurants to shut their doors.
“It’s hard to compete with comp’ed rooms and free food,” Dover said.
Editing by Jane Sutton and Eric Beech