Malaysia’s Genting Group is lobbying hard in Florida’s election year as it seeks to secure the foothold it needs to build a Miami casino resort.
The company, which bought the Miami Herald building in downtown Miami with US$236m in cash in 2011 and tried unsuccessfully to gain approval for a destination resort casino from lawmakers, having spent US$1.3m in the 2012 election cycle, has embarked on a two-pronged political strategy.
Half of its money has been steered into a petition drive for a pro-casino amendment to the state Constitution that would bypass the Legislature to bring casinos to Florida. It’s remaining contribution has been split — $486,000 to the Republican Party of Florida and $111,000 to the Florida Democratic Party.
“This is probably the most challenging election cycle in the last 40 years and maybe for the next decade,” said one Florida lobbyist. “The out-of-state casino folks are causing everybody to focus a lot more resources into the issue and obviously everybody has to step up to the plate and be competitive.”
Storefront Internet cafes continue to grow in numbers across Florida, virtually unregulated, creating a new breed of political committees designed to protect their interests. Meanwhile local pari-mutuels are trying to exploit an untested loophole in state law that would allow them to install slot machines at their dog tracks.
Pressure is also mounting to re-open a key provision of the state’s gaming compact with the Seminole Tribe before it expires in 2015, in part a defensive attempt to counter the push by Genting, Las Vegas Sands and other casino operators to bring destination resort casinos to its backyard. The compact requires the Seminoles pay the state $233m annually.
Aside from the lobbying, Genting is going directly to voters with a constitutional amendment on the 2014 statewide ballot. The company is not revealing its plans, but as soon as the language is drafted, it could start gathering signatures at polling sites as early as the August primary or November general election.
Genting has also retained the services of a constitutional law expert to write the amendment and hired a Nevada-based firm that specialises in organising petitions.
Among the issues to be decided: How many casino sites should be allowed? Should it be limited to Miami-Dade and Broward, which would forfeit the revenue sharing from the Seminole tribe’s operations in those counties, or should a casino be allowed in Palm Beach, Tampa or elsewhere, which would undermine the entire revenue sharing compact?
Another key question: Will Genting move forward with a ballot amendment in the same year the governor seeks re-election, potentially drawing casino supporters to the polls in a dicey election year? Whatever the company decides, observers say the threat of the amendment gives Genting added leverage against a recalcitrant Legislature and a reluctant governor.