Florida legislators are planning a huge overhaul of the state’s outdated gambling laws, but if they don’t act quickly, the fate of the industry could lie in the hands of their constituents.
Lawmakers have found themselves in a tug-of-war in between billion-dollar casino companies and tourism giants like Walt Disney Co., both of which are lobbying to secure the best possible terms in any new legislation.
But if no decisions can be made on the future of Florida’s gaming industry during the spring session, the choice may be put up to a vote by the state’s citizens. House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, and Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, are championing a constitutional amendment which would require future gambling expansions to be brought before voters statewide.
“I think we have seen gaming creep. The Legislature has not had its hands on the wheel when it comes the gaming laws of the state of Florida,” Weatherford said. “The idea I’m warming up to, which I think makes a lot of sense, is to give the power back to the people when it comes to gaming expansion.” The idea is further backed by house conservatives and Central Florida’s tourism industry.
Gaetz believes that giving the green light to casino mega-resorts has an effect on the entire state. “You can make an argument that that’s a systemic change that the people of Florida ought to have a say about,” he said.
Approving destination resorts isn’t the only thing on the agenda. Also up for discussion in the spring will be how to reform regulation of existing gaming operations, creating a stronger gaming commission, setting future tax rates on the industry and renegotiating a lucrative contract with the Seminole Tribe of Florida.
But the main challenge ahead for casino giants like Las Vegas Sands will be their ability to sway legislators before the end of the spring session; they would much rather rely on well-connected lobbyists than take their chances on a statewide vote.