Published: February 2, 2024

Florida: After billionaires come out in opposition, this casino bill was withdrawn from agenda

TALLAHASSEE — A push to advance legislation that could bring a casino to the Fontainebleau Resort in Miami Beach appeared to be on life support Wednesday evening, shortly after a powerful group of South Florida business leaders threatened to descend on Tallahassee to fight the measure.

The proposal was scheduled to be heard by the Senate Regulated Industries committee on Monday, but news of the group’s plans resulted in a scramble that saw the bill withdrawn from the committee’s agenda less than three hours after it was posted.

Earlier Wednesday, Miami Beach city officials had voted to accept use of a plane owned by billionaire auto magnate Norman Braman, along with funds from Braman and developer Armando Codina, to fly more than 100 officials and residents to Tallahassee for the anticipated hearing on Monday.

Those plans were quickly scrapped after news that the bill would no longer be considered. In a text message to the Times/Herald on Wednesday evening, Braman said there was “no reason to come” to Tallahassee anymore.

The quick turn of events was the culmination of an intense public and private lobbying effort that included GOP megadonor Ken Griffin — a hedge fund billionaire and new Miami resident — publicly opposing the measure and entities representing Jeffrey Soffer, the billionaire owner of the iconic Fontainebleau hotel, advocating for the legislation.

On Tuesday, Griffin penned a letter to the editor in the Miami Herald opposing the measure. He doubled down on Wednesday, saying in a statement that the measure would “let the Legislature skirt the explicit will of the people.”

Soffer’s role in the legislative process also added to the casino palace intrigue. Entities tied to the real estate mogul poured more than $300,000 last year into PACs supporting state legislators, including nine Republicans who represent Miami-Dade County.

Soffer has a relationship with Gov. Ron DeSantis, who remains influential in the legislative process following his failed bid for president.

DeSantis has been known to travel on a jet owned by Soffer over the years. While DeSantis has defended those trips, critics have said the travel arrangement is a way for special interests to get access to the governor.

DeSantis’ office did not respond to requests seeking comment on his stance on the bill. House Speaker Paul Renner, through a spokesperson, declined to comment when asked if he had talked to DeSantis or Soffer about the measure.

‘Out of respect for constituents’ time and effort’

Senate President Kathleen Passidomo earlier this month deferred to the Miami-Dade delegation to determine the fate of the proposal.

On Wednesday, her office said the bill was removed from the agenda “out of respect for” the time and effort of constituents who were planning to travel to Tallahassee to oppose a bill. Katie Betta, a Senate spokeswoman, said the bill “did not have a way forward.”

Senate Regulated Industries chairperson Joe Gruters told the Times/Herald on Wednesday evening that the decision to pull the bill from consideration was made after he learned the “House said it would not pass.”

Without a House vote, Gruters said there was “no need” to have a vote in the Senate. To become law, a bill needs to be approved by both the House and Senate before it can be sent to the governor.

But, Gruters added, “maybe next year.”

Cheers in Miami Beach

During the Miami Beach City Commission meeting on Wednesday evening, Mayor Steven Meiner cut away from the regular agenda to announce there was “breaking news” on the gambling legislation.

Commissioner Alex Fernandez then announced that the city’s lobbyist in Tallahassee, Ron Book, had notified city officials that the bill was removed from Monday’s committee agenda and “will not be heard at all this session.”

The news drew cheers from those attending the meeting at the Miami Beach Convention Center two miles south of the Fontainebleau.

“While continued vigilance is always the smart path, this is a clear sign that we are nearly out of the woods,” Fernandez told the Times/Herald in a text message.

The proposed legislation, if approved, would have let gaming permit holders transfer their permits to a new location within 30 miles, and would have overrode any local government restrictions on gambling.

Gaming facilities have been banned citywide in Miami Beach since 2017.

Specifically, the bills said those with greyhound dog racing permits and authorization to conduct casino activities — such as Soffer’s Big Easy Casino in Hallandale Beach — should be allowed to relocate the operation of “all pari-mutuel wagering and gaming activities.”

In Miami Beach, the proposal drew the ire of many community members. At Wednesday’s City Commission meeting, the mayor and city attorney

said they believe the bills would be “unconstitutional,” pointing to a 2018 constitutional amendment approved in a statewide referendum that gave voters the exclusive right to authorize casino gambling expansions.

In an interview, Braman pointed out that the opposition campaign recently gained a powerful ally in Griffin, who gave $10 million to DeSantis’ reelection campaign and appears to be increasingly interested in getting involved in Florida politics.

Members of the Miami-Dade legislative delegation on both sides of the aisle also have been increasingly speaking against the proposal.

“Fontainebleau is in my district, and my constituents and the city leaders have been very vocal and clear about their opposition on this issue,” said Sen. Shevrin Jones, D-West Park. “I believe at this time, this is not the best move for the city or the people within it.”

The Legislature “should respect the will of the people and put the issue to bed,” Jones added.

Miami Republicans have also raised concerns about a new casino in Miami-Dade County.

Sen. Bryan Avila, R-Miami Springs, said he is against the measure. And Sen. Ileana Garcia, R-Miami, said she did not “see the need or justification to prioritize this type of initiative.”

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