The bill authorizing three destination resort casinos in South Florida abruptly died in a House of Representatives subcommittee Friday morning when the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Erik Fresen, R-Miami, asked that it be temporarily postponed.
Backers of the plan said it would have created tens of thousands of jobs, but it was also met by fierce opposition from Central Florida theme parks, most restaurant and hotel owners and the pari-mutuels.
The committee heard comments for and against the bill Friday.
"We want Americans to work. This is about jobs," said Everett Wilkinson, chairman of the South Florida Tea Party.
"What is before you today would be disastrous to the quality of life that I and my fellow citizens of Miami have been fighting for years to protect," said Grace Solares, of Miami Neighborhoods United.
"We believe that it's 5,000 to 6,000 per casino for two and a half years, so we're looking to 15,000 to 18,000 construction jobs for two and a half years," said Rick Watson, legal counsel for the Associated Builders and Contractors of Florida. "I'll leave it for others to deal with the casino issue or the gambling issue. We have gambling and we have casinos in Florida, so I really don't think it's an issue."
But legalized gambling is very much an issue for the conservative House and the committee.
The bill would have needed eight yes votes to move forward. When Fresen saw he did not have enough support, he retreated.
"I can read the tea leaves," Fresen said after more than a dozen people had testified pro and con.
The committee chairman warned postponement meant Fresen's bill would die.
Fresen had modified to the bill Thursday in an attempt to win over skeptical House members, but apparently it wasn’t enough.
A similar bill had passed the more moderate Florida Senate. But as of Friday, any attempt to pass a destination resort bill in the current legislative session appears doomed to fail.
The Genting Group, which wants to build Resorts World Miami, has said upwards of 5,000 people would be hired to build the facility on the site of the Miami Herald building, and building and trade association groups said their members need those jobs.
The bill authorizing the three destination resort casinos will not be passed by the Legislature this season. Casino supporters will try again next year.
On Friday, Jessica Hoppe, senior vice president of government affairs and general counsel for Resorts World Miami, released a statement, saying, "We greatly appreciate the hard work of the destination resorts legislation bill sponsors, as well as all those who support efforts to bring commonsense 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."
Genting has already spent about $500 million to buy property in Miami. Sources said it plans to continue with Resorts World Miami, but it will be scaled back in size and scope.
Decision draws mixed reaction
At a power-lunch in downtown Miami on Friday, the buzz was the dead-in-the-water mega-casino bill.
Former Miami-Dade County Mayor Alex Penelas said if the bill comes back in the next legislative session, South Floridians want it to guarantee jobs.
"There's a lot of hope that destination resorts legislation can bring about meaningful job growth in South Florida," Penelas said.
Miami Mayor Tomas Regalado is pleased the bill is on hold. The proposal could land the Genting Group's casino in downtown Miami, where he said traffic and infrastructure could be a big problem.
"I think it's the right thing to do because we cannot rush into this huge project that could impact the city of Miami," Regalado said. "I believe the people of Florida, especially in Miami-Dade County, should decide what we want and when we want it."
Across the causeway, the chief of staff for the Miami Beach mayor said they are thrilled.
The Seminole Tribe, which just reopened its new and improved casino in Coconut Creek, might be pleased, too. The Tribe had no comment Friday, although it came out in opposition to the bill late last year.
Spokesman Gary Bitner said the Tribe's focus is on what it can contribute to the state.
"Floridians will still see an economic impact of almost $250 million this year from the expansion of Seminole gaming at Tampa and Coconut Creek," he said.
A representative of the South Florida AFL-CIO, however, said the union is disappointed because casinos could have generated thousands of jobs for union members.
Miami resident Mike Jones said he was disappointed, as well. He said the extra traffic would have been worth it for more jobs to come into his back yard.
"Think about the off season, summertime. The hotels are dead. People gamble all year round," Jones said.