Destination casino bill due out today

Lawmakers learned yesterday that the state’s budget gap might reach nearly $2 billion, according to updated revenue estimates; however, some legislators remain leery of betting on casinos to bankroll the budget — while others are eyeing the gambling halls for scarce new revenue.

Sen. Ellyn Bogdanoff, R-Fort Lauderdale, and Rep. Erik Fresen, R-Miami, are preparing to introduce a bill today that will allow three destination casino resorts in Miami-Dade and Broward counties only.

The bill requires a minimum $2 billion investment for each license issued.

Bogdanoff prefers to call it a gaming reform bill which will create an independent commission to oversee casino operations, but she also sees the benefit of added revenue in another tough budget year.

Governor Rick Scott has stated that any casinos should be approved by the local communities, but that he does not want to rely heavily on gambling to fund the state budget.

The compelling argument to allow the three casinos to move forward seems two-fold.

First, the Senate Budget Committee learned yesterday that state economists have upped their budget shortfall projection from of an estimated $1.3 billion to $1.96 billion.

On top of that, education dollars will be strained this year by an atypical jump in student enrollment and the end of federal stimulus funds, which means there will be $554 million less for school districts next year.

“If we get any kind of casinos in the state — I don’t know if such a bill will pass — but certainly I’d like to see it go to education,” said Sen. Evelyn Lynn, R-Ormand Beach, who sits on the Senate Education PreK-12 Appropriation Subcommittee.

Secondly, sponsoring Senator Bogdanoff said, “For me, the driving force is not the economic development — it is to create a strategic direction in gaming.”

Florida already has a hodge-podge of gaming; between the state operated lottery, casino cruises to nowhere, Internet sweepstakes cafes, pari-mutuel dog and horse races, Jai-Alai frontons and no-limit “Texas Hold ‘Em” poker rooms, not to mention traditional casinos with table games and slot machines owned by the Seminole Indian tribe.

Sen. Bill Montford, D-Tallahassee, a former superintendent of Leon County schools, said he sympathizes with school administrators and might welcome revenue from casinos, but cautioned against using casino revenue as a crutch for the education budget.

“We should certainly take a look at that, but we sure shouldn’t bank on that now. There are too many unknowns and our education budget is too important and too critical to depend on funding we may not have,” Montford said.

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