A bill that would open the door to a multibillion-dollar expansion of Florida's gambling industry was introduced in the southeastern U.S. state's legislature on Wednesday, holding out the promise of jobs and money to a depressed economy.
The Republican-backed proposal would create a state agency called the Florida State Gaming Commission to license, regulate and enforce gambling throughout Florida.
The commission's initial responsibilities would include awarding three casino gambling licenses in south Florida's Miami-Dade and Broward counties, in return for an investment of at least $2 billion by each of the casino operators in Las Vegas-style hotel towers and glitzy resort complexes.
Successful applicants would be required to make a $50 million one-time license payment, with an annual renewal fee pegged at $2 million. They would also be subject to a 10-percent tax on gross gambling revenues.
State law now bars casinos from expanding beyond businesses operated by the Seminole Indian tribe and selected racetracks and jai alai courts.
Anti-gambling sentiment runs strong in many parts of Florida, but speculation about possible changes in its gambling laws has been mounting for months.
Gambling fever has gripped the state since Malaysia-based Genting Berhad, one of the biggest international casino developers, announced in May it was paying $236 million for a 14-acre (5.7 hectare) piece of waterfront property in downtown Miami that currently houses the Miami Herald newspaper.
The cash-rich company, which controls casino resorts in Malaysia and Singapore, has conjured up visions of Miami becoming a sort of Macau of the Americas, a palm-fringed playground for global gamblers.
'FAMILY-FRIENDLY' IMAGE AT STAKE?
Gambling titans led by the Las Vegas Sands Corp have been lobbying to persuade lawmakers to allow for full casino gambling at so-called "destination resorts" in Florida since the Seminole tribe won its right to offer blackjack, baccarat and other banked card games more than two years ago.
But a proposal to bring five destination resorts to the state died in the Republican-controlled legislature last year.
Opponents of any liberalization of Florida's gambling laws include the Chamber of Commerce and Disney World, a leading magnet of tourism dollars coming into Florida.
The Orlando-based arm of Walt Disney Co says gambling tarnishes Florida's "family-friendly" image.
No Casinos Inc, an anti-casino group, has questioned claims that expanded gambling would create tens of thousands of new jobs in Florida, which is struggling to shake off record-high unemployment.
"The fact is that when casinos are introduced into a developed economy like ours, they do little more than cannibalize existing jobs and businesses," the group said in a recent statement.
Republican Governor Rick Scott has stopped short of saying whether he supports the bill that will be debated in the 2012 legislative session starting in January.
The bill's proposed 10-percent tax rate on casino revenues is believed to be the lowest in the United States, except for Nevada's 7 percent tax.
But Nick Iarossi, a Tallahassee-based lobbyist for the Las Vegas Sands, told Reuters the low rate was in line with the $2 billion investment threshold for getting licensed under the legislative proposal.
"If you're going to require someone to spend $2 billion you have to have a low enough tax rate to justify a return on investment," Iarossi said.