By Bill Cotterell
TALLAHASSEE, Fla., March 3 (Reuters) - A state Senate special committee has offered a plan to allow two huge casinos in south Florida, setting up an election-year skirmish between traditional "family fun" tourism interests and developers eager to draw young gamblers away from Caribbean island resorts.
"We're getting ready to roll the dice," Senator Garrett Richter said at the start of a 90-minute meeting on the eve of Florida's 2014 legislative session which convenes on Tuesday.
The Senate Select Committee on Gaming did not vote on the three bills before it, including a constitutional amendment limiting future gambling growth and the massive rearrangement of betting laws ranging from casinos to the state lottery. Instead, the panel set the package up for public discussion in the first half of the session.
The election-year session lasts 60 days and gambling is a big issue. A major side bet in the debate is the future of the state's existing contract with the Seminole Indian tribe, worth more than $200 million a year, which expires next year.
The 2010 compact gives the tribe exclusive rights to banked card games like blackjack at its reservations.
Platoons of lobbyists are also mobilized to defend interests of well-established pari-mutuel horse, dog and jai-alai businesses, as well as the Disney-style attractions in central Florida that want to preserve the state's family vacation image.
The centerpiece of the Senate package is a bill allowing the state to invite proposals from resort developers on a "destination casino" in Miami-Dade County and another in Broward County. Both locations are in south Florida, at least a three-hour drive from the Orlando area, home to Walt Disney World and several other family-themed resorts.
Competitors would have to "demonstrate a commitment to spend a minimum of $2 billion" on each location within five years, and would have to plan mixed-use developments with no more than 10 percent of total square footage devoted to casino operations.
There would be an application fee of $125 million, refundable to unsuccessful suitors, and a requirement that winners contribute $250,000 a year to programs to help compulsive gamblers.
"We're probably at least five years away from the first destination resort casino opening its doors," said Richter, a Naples Republican whose committee has been holding public hearings across the state and working on a bill since last May that now runs to 453 pages.
Casino companies from Malaysia and Las Vegas have pitched ideas for the Southeast Florida operations, but there is resistance not only from Central Florida family attractions but also conservative lawmakers who don't like gambling at all.
Malaysia's Genting Group paid about $400 million in 2011 for the former waterfront offices of the Miami Herald newspaper and a nearby commercial complex, hoping to get permission to build a $3 billion casino resort, with 50 restaurants, 5,200 hotel rooms and some 8,000 slot machines.
Aside from the mega resorts, the casino package also provides for consolidating state gambling regulation under a new Gaming Control Department, responsible to a state regulatory commission and a joint legislative committee that would monitor the spread of gambling. A separate bill provides for a constitutional amendment to be on the November ballot, providing that no further expansion of gambling would be allowed without majority approval by Florida voters.
The new department would absorb the existing state lottery, as well as regulation of existing pari-mutuel betting establishments.
Some members of the select committee voiced concern about casinos' impact on surrounding businesses, saying hotel guests would rarely venture out of a restaurant-shopping complex and long-established shops near a casino would wither in a short time.
The Republican leadership in the House of Representatives has not shown as much interest in casinos as the Senate, and Governor Rick Scott has remained noncommittal, saying only that he does not want the state to become dependent on gambling revenue.