By Michael Peltier
TALLAHASSEE, Florida (Reuters) - A bill that would open the door to a multibillion-dollar expansion of Florida's gambling industry cleared its first hurdle in the southeastern U.S. state's legislature on Monday.
As put forward by its Republican sponsors in the Florida Senate and House, the bill would create a state agency called the Florida State Gaming Commission to license, regulate and enforce gambling throughout Florida.
The commission's initial responsibilities would include awarding 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 glitzy resort complexes.
Successful applicants would be required to make a $50 million one-time license payment, with an annual renewal fee pegged at $2 million. They would also be subject to a 10-percent tax on gross gambling revenues.
State law now bars casinos from expanding beyond businesses or so-called pari-mutuels operated by the Seminole Indian tribe and selected racetracks and jai alai courts.
The Senate Regulated Industries Committee approved the bill by 7-3 in Monday's vote, after an amendment that would give voters final say on the casino issue through local referendums on whether to expand gambling in their counties.
Approval also came after another amendment that would allow pari-mutuels the right to operate full-fledged casino games at the same tax rates levied against the larger resort casinos.
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 Seminoles won their right to offer blackjack, baccarat and other banked card games more than two years ago.
Anti-gambling sentiment runs strong in many parts of the state. Opponents including the Chamber of Commerce and Disney World, a leading magnet for tourism, say gambling threatens to tarnish Florida's "family-friendly" image.
But support for expanded gambling has been growing since Malaysia-based Genting Berhad, one of the biggest international casino developers, announced in May it was paying $236 million for a 14-acre 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 held out promises of tens of thousands of new jobs if restrictions on gambling are loosened. It has also conjured up images of Miami becoming a sort of cross-roads of the gambling world, a palm-fringed playground for global high-rollers.
"We're pretty pleased with this 7-3 vote, it's a good start to get this thing going," Nick Iarossi, a Tallahassee-based lobbyist for the Las Vegas Sands, told Reuters shortly after the gambling bill cleared its initial legislative hurdle.
"Our goal is to get it though the committees and get it to a floor vote," he added, saying he hoped the bill would become law sometime during the current legislative session, which officially gets under way on Tuesday.
(Additional reporting by Tom Brown; Editing by Daniel Trotta)