When Gov. Rick Scott says Florida "is open for business," does he mean casinos? The gaming industry is taking that proposition bet.
Several Las Vegas casino companies are said to be angling to build destination resorts in the Sunshine State. And they have a politically connected player doing the spade work in South Florida.
Al Cardenas, a Miami lobbyist for Wynn casinos and a former state Republican Party chairman, was recently quoted as saying, "The concept is not just to create a source of revenue for the state that could equal or surpass the lottery. More important is the billions that would be invested in our state and the creation of tens of thousands of permanent, high-paying jobs."
Whether gaming would provide a financial windfall is a matter of debate. Casino moguls point to Las Vegas, which has swelled from a dusty desert outpost to a metropolitan market of more than 2 million people.
Critics cite Atlantic City, where full-scale gaming has done little or nothing to bolster New Jersey's fiscal or social standing. Crime remains endemic in the city, and casino revenues have not trickled down from its gambling spas.
Florida Gov. Rick Scott has played both sides of the casino question. He quickly backed away from a St. Petersburg Times report that he was "considering" resort-style gaming.
But Scott's opening was followed up this week by Senate President Mike Haridopolos, who opined that there was a "50-50 chance" that enabling legislation could pass this session.
State Sen. Paula Dockery, R-Lakeland, says she is surprised by the casino push.
"I'm not sure why we're discussing it. After all the work by [Rep.] Bill Galvano and [Sen.] Dennis Jones, I thought we were done," Dockery told Sunshine State News.
Galvano and Jones helped shepherd through then-Gov. Charlie Crist's Seminole compact last session, enabling the tribe to offer Las Vegas-style gaming and loosening rules regulating card rooms at race tracks and jai alai frontons.
TRIGGERING AN ECONOMIC BOOM, OR CANNIBALIZING BUSINESS?
The velocity and persistency of the latest casino conversation suggests that there is more behind-the-scenes action.
Lawmakers appear open to discussion as they search for ways to plug a $3 billion-plus budget gap. Some, arguing that there's no such thing as being a little pregnant, figure the Seminole pact opened the door for more gambling ventures.
Gary Bitner, a spokesman for the Seminoles, said the tribe had no comment.
But Haridopolos told radio station WFLA that he's open to the idea of expanding gaming. Were a big-time gambling state and we need to figure out in general how were going to maximize revenue because people are going to gamble," the Merritt Island Republican said.
Tea party groups, which helped elect Republican supermajorities in both houses last fall, tend to be agnostic about gaming. Steering clear of moral issues, the movement focuses on fiscal concerns. The prospect of new jobs is appealing.
On the other hand, social conservatives adamantly oppose the expansion of gambling.
John Stemberger, who heads the Florida Family Policy Council, calls the casino talk "very shortsighted."
"It does not look at the long-term, secondary impacts on society, including depression and divorce," the Orlando attorney says.
Opposition to casinos is more than a moral concern. Studies weighing the cost-benefit of gambling contend that, in the long run, casinos actually sap economic vitality of communities while contributing to pathologies ranging from alcoholism to crime to higher bankruptcy rates. Las Vegas and Atlantic City are cited as prime examples.
Indeed, after a decades-long economic boom, Las Vegas has become an epicenter for homelessness and home foreclosures. Long known for having one of the lowest-performing school districts in the nation, the community now suffers intractable budget problems and a Port St. Lucie-esque 14 percent unemployment rate -- even as casinos continue to bustle.
According to the Vegas axiom: "The only thing that grows in the shade of a casino are pawn shops and used-car lots."
Les Bernal, executive director of Stop Predatory Gambling, said, "Casinos are built on milking existing prosperity. There's no wealth creation there."
Bernal, speaking from his Washington, D.C., office, said casino-friendly comments by Scott and Haridopolos "are reflective of ignorance."
"It's the idea that government's answer to creating jobs and raising revenues is based on people losing money and falling further into debt. This notion of government as a predatory partner is just symbolic of government being broken," Bernal said.
"If the new governor and Legislature take a look at this issue and stop reading the PR of the casinos, they would realize this would be a huge loser for Florida," Bernal added.
Disney, noting how gaming conflicts or competes with its family-friendly franchise, has long opposed casinos in Florida.
Former Gov. Jeb Bush and newly elected U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio have both spoken out against gaming expansion in the state. Bush played a crucial role in beating back a casino initiative in his home county of Miami-Dade several years ago.
GAMERS ZERO IN ON FLORIDA MARKET; A LAS VEGAS STRIP IN MIAMI?
But relentlessly seeking to expand their market, Nevada gamers see the Sunshine State as a logical extension -- at least on the Southern peninsula. Though espousing an anti-casino position during the fall campaign, Scott reportedly was favorably impressed during a recent visit with Las Vegas Sands executive Sheldon Adelson.
Adelson, whose gaming empire extends to Macau, has said he would be willing to proceed with a $3 billion casino resort project in Miami.
Wynn Resorts, Caesars Entertainment and Penn National Gaming (which specializes in race track casinos) also are said to be among the companies targeting destination resorts for Miami Beach, Fort Lauderdale, Tampa and other unidentified locations.
The Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority calculates that about half of the domestic visitation to Las Vegas comes from sources that are as close or closer to Florida than Nevada.
Among the ideas reportedly discussed by Cardenas & Co. is legislation allowing operation of casino resorts spaced at least 75 miles apart. As a condition of those exclusive regional franchises, gaming companies would pay a one-time application fee of at least $50 million to the state.
Another plan would concentrate competing casinos, a la the Las Vegas Strip.
None of the gaming scenarios impresses William Thompson, professor of public administration at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.
"I don't know if it will go. It won't bring in more tourists than you already have," said Thompson, a skeptic of casinos as economic-development engines.
"The general public should be warned that this won't bring more money to Florida, either. The jobs promise is shaky because you will lose other jobs."
Thompson noted, however, that determined politicians and casino investors, including the race tracks, will continue to push for gaming -- and that public officials could leverage the issue by threatening to raise taxes as an alternative.
"But it's not going to add anything to the economy," he predicted.
Meantime, research by MIT professor Natasha Schull suggests that Florida may already have its hands full with the Las Vegas-style gaming now permitted at Seminole casinos.
Schull's analysis of slot machines and video poker terminals found that the devices "have been carefully designed to make [players] lose as much as possible."
"The rise in slot gambling, fueled in large part by technological developments, has led to much higher rates of gambling addiction," the professor concluded.
Reach Kenric Ward at email@example.com or at (772) 801-5341.