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Bill to ban floating casinos may wait

Sen. Tom Lee says he's considering the delay to see how a state challenge of the industry plays out in court.

By LUCY MORGAN

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 19, 2000


TALLAHASSEE -- A move in the Legislature to outlaw gambling cruises to nowhere may have to wait until next year.

Sen. Tom Lee, R-Brandon, sponsor of a bill that would shut down the cruises, said Tuesday that he is considering letting challenges to the operation of the cruise ships work their way through the courts before he tries to pass his bill.

Attorney General Bob Butterworth thinks the cruises are already in violation of the law and has filed suit against them in Volusia County, where the Sun Cruz line operates cruises to nowhere out of Ponce Inlet.

In Florida, 28 ships operate such cruises, which allow gambling once the ship moves into international waters. There are eight ships operating in Pinellas, Pasco and Citrus counties.

On Tuesday, members of the Senate Regulated Industries Committee, of which Lee is chairman, heard from parimutuel lobbyists who favor an end to the cruises and cruise lobbyists who contend they are a major economic benefit for the state.

Former House Speaker Ralph Haben, a lobbyist for the Day Cruise Association, urged legislators to pass a "fair tax" on the industry and let it continue operating.

"Somebody out there must like us," Haben said. "We carried 4-million passengers last year, and 42 percent of them were tourists. And we don't have prostitution on our boats -- there is not enough time."

He said the industry spends about $6-million to operate each ship, generates $48-million a year in economic benefits for communities where they locate and buys more than $100-million in goods and services.

Haben noted that all of Butterworth's efforts to shut the industry down have failed, including efforts to take away their occupational licenses, seize their slot machines and get the governor and Cabinet to take away submerged land leases used to dock the boats.

"Let my people go, set us free," Haben joked.

After the committee meeting, Lee said he realizes that any law banning cruise ships would have a significant economic impact in several areas of the state.

With no House companion to his bill, chances of passage are slim, Lee acknowledged.

"Besides, I've been somewhat embattled in the last few weeks," Lee joked. "We may have to put this off until another day."

Lee is the sponsor of several controversial bills that have been at the center of extensive lobbying attacks. He is fighting beer wholesalers to repeal a law that restricts the sale of imported and microbrewed beer that doesn't come in the four sizes mandated by law. He is also fighting the state's two biggest power companies in a bill that could lead to deregulation of the industry.

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