TALLAHASSEE, Fla (Reuters) - A bill aimed at opening the door to an ambitious, multibillion-dollar expansion of Florida's gambling industry was introduced in the state legislature on Wednesday.
The Republican-backed proposal, which holds out promises of jobs and money in a bad economy, would create a state agency to license, regulate and enforce gambling throughout Florida.
The Florida State Gaming Commission would award three casino gambling licenses in south Florida's Miami-Dade and Broward counties, in return for an investment of at least $2 billion by each of the casino operators in Las Vegas-style hotel towers and resort complexes.
State law now bars casinos from expanding beyond businesses operated by the Seminole Indian tribe and selected racetracks and jai alai courts.
Anti-gambling sentiment runs strong in many parts of Florida, but speculation about possible changes in its gambling laws has been mounting for months.
Gambling fever has gripped the state since Malaysia-based Genting Berhad, one of the biggest international casino developers, announced in May that it was paying $236 million for a 14-acre (5.7 hectare) piece of waterfront property in downtown Miami that currently houses the Miami Herald newspaper.
The cash-rich company, which controls casino resorts in Malaysia and Singapore, has conjured up visions of Miami becoming a sort of Macau of the Americas, a palm-fringed playground for global gamblers.
'FAMILY-FRIENDLY' IMAGE AT STAKE?
Gambling titans led by the Las Vegas Sands Corp have been lobbying to persuade lawmakers to allow for full casino gambling at so-called "destination resorts" in Florida since the Seminole tribe won its right to offer blackjack, baccarat and other banked card games more than two years ago.
A proposal to bring five destination resorts to the state died in the legislature in March of last year, however.
Opponents of any liberalization of Florida's gambling laws include the Chamber of Commerce and Disney World, a leading magnet of tourism dollars coming into Florida.
The Orlando-based arm of Walt Disney Co says gambling tarnishes Florida's "family-friendly" image.
Republican Governor Rick Scott has stopped short of saying whether he supports the bill that will be debated in the 2012 legislative session starting in January.
But the measure is in line with Scott's pro-jobs agenda for the state, which has been battling record-high unemployment. Supporters of the bill say it will create tens of thousands of permanent jobs and billions of dollars in infrastructure investment.
"Obviously with multiple destination resorts it's going to create a lot of construction and then direct and indirect jobs," Nick Iarossi, a Tallahassee-based lobbyist for the Las Vegas Sands told Reuters.
(Writing by Tom Brown, additional reporting by Michael Peltier; Editing by Xavier Briand)