Miami International Airport gambling venture facing opposition from others in industry
By Risa Polansky
Going after slot machines at Miami International Airport is a gamble, with some gaming industry players hoping to keep newcomers out.
That competition could complicate finding someone to jockey for Miami-Dade in Tallahassee, one airport official fears.
A county attorney, however, says he is less concerned about the fact that the county's two primary state lobbyists represent clients in the gaming arena.
Miami-Dade Aviation is applying for a quarter-horse racing permit, prelude to a slots license.
Officials last week asked the county's Airport and Seaport Committee to sign off on the racing application, as well as to formally urge the Florida Department of Business & Professional Regulation to approve it and to oppose any effort by the Legislature or others to block the county from racing or slots.
Deputy Aviation Director Miguel Southwell warned that the goal might not be as easily achieved as it sounds.
"This item is meeting with some opposition by other parts of the gaming industry," he told commissioners.
And lobbyists Gary Rutledge and Ron Book represent industry players, he said — a possible "predicament" for the county.
"We have no representative in Tallahassee," Mr. Southwell said.
The news of opposition surprised commissioners, who have stressed from the get-go that racing would be held at an existing venue and airport slots would be installed post security to ensure they don't create competition with local gambling establishments.
José "Pepe" Diaz pointed out also that the county might open bidding for an existing pari-mutuel to run airport slots — so what's the problem?, he asked.
Mr. Southwell guessed it's because commissioners down the line could change those policies.
"I think the fear is that any legislative body any time in the future, since this permit is in perpetuity, might not be as supportive as you," he said.
Though Mr. Southwell was concerned about the county's ability to counter opponents, Assistant County Attorney Jess McCarty said in an interview that "we think we have the ability to advocate the county's position effectively."
The county, he said, has six contracted lobbying firms.
It would be a conflict for any of them to go to the state to oppose the county's racing application, but he said "they've assured us they have not done that and will not do that."
Mr. Book said in an interview Monday that it's "no secret" he represents what used to be known as Flagler dog track, which opened last week as Magic City Casino in debuting Las Vegas-style slots.
Whether or not he or Mr. Rutledge can represent the county on this issue shouldn't be a problem, he said, because "the county's lobbying team is vast."
Mr. Rutledge, who did not return a call, disclosed in a letter to Mr. McCarty that he has clients elsewhere in Florida involved in a lawsuit against the state and others related to quarter-horse permits but said he is "unaware of any conflict with the county concerning this litigation."
Mr. McCarty confirmed the suit is not directly related to the county and said it's not clear yet whether there would be implications for Miami-Dade.
Should the full commission approve the measure ratifying the racing application and formally urging it be approved, the county would follow its standard procedure of identifying "the best person, the best firm on our team to advocate our position, and we'd assign that to them," Mr. McCarty said.
Should officials determine a conflict exists with any lobbyists, he said, it would be up to the commission to decide what to do, such as grant or deny waivers.
"It's really a policy question at the end of the day for the board [of commissioners]."