Could slot machines be on their way to Miami International Airport? - Friday 24th of July 2009

Miami-Dade County said it needs new sources of cash to meet rising airport costs -- and that could come in the form of slot machines.

Are slot machines a cure for Miami International Airports financial woes?

Miami-Dade County leaders think they could be.

On Tuesday, Miami-Dade commissioners voted to allow the county manager to immediately seek a permit that would give the county the ability to apply for a slot machine license from state officials.

The move came at the urging of the Miami-Dade Aviation Department, which is scrambling for new revenue sources to plug giant anticipated deficits. The surprise move triggered instant reaction, much of it critical.

Airport officials said quick action is required because the laws governing gambling in Florida are set to change with final approval of the gaming compact between the state and the Seminole Tribe of Florida.

The window of opportunity may close shortly, said Miguel Southwell, deputy aviation director. ``It doesnt mean we would do it, but we would like to have the option.

The countys decision to pursue slot machines at MIA is sure to become a hot-button issue, reigniting the debate about where gaming should be made available in Miami-Dade -- and who should house it.

There is tremendous sensitivity to the concerns of the law of unintended consequences when the county becomes competitors with the private sector, said lobbyist Ron Book, who represents Flagler Dog Track and Entertainment Center in Miami.

The countys proposal calls for slot machines beyond security checkpoints at MIA, which supporters hope would lure travelers to gamble -- and pad airport coffers -- while waiting for flights. Under the permit, the county would also have to strike an agreement to run quarterhorse races off site.

The proposal is one of several County Manager George Burgess spelled out in a memo detailing possible ways to curb the financial straits MIA finds itself in.

MIAs annual operating cost, including debt service, has reached $600 million, Burgess said -- and will skyrocket to $1.1 billion by 2015 because of debt associated with airport construction and rising operating costs.

This increase will demand that the Miami-Dade Aviation Department raise a staggering $500 million more each year, he wrote to county commissioners.

Calling it crucial that MIA raise money from sources other than airlines, Burgess pitched a mix of public-private partnerships and business ventures. The slot machine idea, he wrote, could raise $17 million a year.

Commissioners voted 8-3 in support of the measure, but several said the issue is subject to another vote and remain undecided if they will ultimately support slots.

Chairman Dennis Moss was joined by commissioners Carlos A. Gimenez, Sally Heyman, Javier D. Souto, Dorrin D. Rolle, Barbara Jordan, Jose Pepe Diaz and Bruno Barreiro.

I like out of the box thinking, Gimenez said. ``I would like to have the option to look at it because we want to remain competitive.

Voting against: Commissioners Katy Sorenson, Audrey Edmonson and Natacha Seijas. Rebeca Sosa and Joe Martinez were absent.

Seijas said she, too, likes ``the idea of thinking outside the box.

But this is opening a Pandoras Box, she said.

Miami-Dades move -- which seeks to exploit a loophole in state law -- would put local government in direct competition with tribal casinos and pari-mutuels, two of which are located within close proximity to the airport.

A loophole tucked into a 2008 state parimutuel law allowed for the issuance of quarter-horse permits -- a less-glamorous, sprint-like form of horse racing not seen in Florida for more than a decade. Hialeah Park latched onto such a permit as a way to reopen, and the Legislature this year granted local quarter-horse permit holders the right to also add slots. The provision was meant to benefit solely Hialeah Park, though Miami-Dade County could wind up profiting as well.

Perhaps more importantly, the countys action might encourage other casino interests to apply for their own quarter-horse permits -- with the real motivation to open a slots parlor. Just like under the countys proposal, running horse races would be an afterthought, and could happen off-site at a leased property somewhere.

If the airport is able to do it, whats to stop the Fontainebleau from doing it? asked state Rep. Esteban Bovo.

Bovo, a Hialeah Republican who said he hadnt yet taken a position on the countys move, was heavily involved in bringing horse racing back to historic Hialeah Park during the recent legislative session.

Hialeah Park took advantage of the same loophole, though there is a difference: Hialeah Park has a decades-long history of gambling, and track owners intend to run quarter-horse races on-site.

Bovo cautioned that just because Miami-Dade applies for a horse-racing permit does not guarantee it will be awarded one by the state.

There is also the possibility that, even if Miami-Dade received its permit, the Legislature could change the rules governing slots the next time it convenes, potentially thwarting the countys plans.

Miami state Rep. Julio Robaina, generally a pro-gambling lawmaker, said he could not support adding slots to MIA. The Republican called it in-your-face gambling, as opposed to casinos that require gamblers to intentionally make a trip to wager.

Next thing it will be in a supermarket, in a mall, Robaina said. ``This is not something that I think would be beneficial to a community.

MIA has long faced scrutiny, from contracts that aided political insiders to blistering customer surveys. Several years ago, a push was launched to take the airport away from politicians and hand it to an independent board. Airport officials say they have worked to reverse those headaches, and that a decades-long expansion is improving service.

But money woes continue, and county officials say they have no choice but to move aggressively. They also say other airports -- such as in Las Vegas and Reno -- have long had slots and that Baltimore and Phoenix are considering them.

MIAs rising costs have already put it at a competitive disadvantage. Currently, it costs an airline $17 to board a passenger at MIA while at airports like Atlanta and Fort Lauderdale it costs only $4. By 2015, MIAs figure could reach nearly $26.

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