Why Not Casinos?
Around the State
It's time for Florida to re-examine its fear of gambling and put it where it can do the state some good -- in smart, high-class state-of-the-art casinos.
I've put off saying this for too long: Why are the leaders in the Florida Legislature too timid to do sooner what they know they're going to do in the end -- embrace destination casinos in Florida? Here we are in 2013, squabbling over disappearing funds for education, Medicaid, children's services, conservation, you name it -- and all the while Mississippi Gulf Coast casinos register more than 55 percent of their business from Florida.
What are we waiting for? Now it looks like the Legislature is going to study the subject for another two years. Is it too much to hope for that by "study," they actually mean to proactively craft a plan?
Even with a ban on gambling locked into the state Constitution, lawmakers over the years somehow have allowed Florida to evolve as the fourth-largest gambling state, with a growing mish-mash of mostly low-end gaming venues, everything from Internet sweepstakes cafes to fronton poker rooms.
Fourth largest, but we have no real handle on the regulation of betting. No strategic direction for it.
Last year, former Sen. Ellyn Bogdanoff, R-Fort Lauderdale and Rep. Erik Fresen, R-Miami, came up with a 165-page bill that would have created an independent gambling commission based on similar models in Nevada and New Jersey. The plan would have consolidated all gambling -- including dog and horse tracks, jai-alai frontons, poker rooms and Internet cafes -- now regulated by three state agencies -- into one new "Department of Gaming Control."
Comprehensive, carefully conceived bill. But, of course, it went down in flames, along with the part of the bill that would have required destination-resort casinos to invest at least $2 billion in the Sunshine State.
In 2012, while casino developers were in Tallahassee, Floridians saw ads that suggestively -- and absurdly -- compared Atlantic City crime and sleaze with what might be likely if a destination-resort casino sprang up in Miami. It reminded me of a scare campaign no-growthers in Martin County embarked upon years ago, showing voters a grim, gray vision of the future if they elected the wrong people -- photos of squalid New York City tenements.
Mostly, opposition to casinos came from Walt Disney World, the folks who helped grow a chunk of Central Florida into a 50-square-mile parking lot. Disney fears competition for the tourism dollar.
But it also came from the Seminole Tribe, with whom Florida made a complex compact in 2010 that gives the tribe exclusive rights to Las Vegas-style table games. The compact expires July 31, 2015. Certainly, it's a valuable piece of state business: The state is due $233 million this year and next as a guaranteed minimum payment, as long as the Seminole take doesn't decline by 5 percent or more.
On the other hand, the tribe has said the deal is off should the Legislature approve new casino games in Broward or Miami-Dade counties, or if it authorizes Internet gaming.
So, Disney doesn't want the competition and neither do the Seminoles. As if there wouldn't be enough tourists or customers to go around.
Florida, take a look at Pennsylvania, a state that welcomed gambling in 2004. Not only has it fattened up the Keystone State, it has the mainstream media blowing it kisses.
"If anyone still wonders if legalizing casinos was good for Pennsylvania, the 2012 gambling revenue figures provide the answer -- an emphatic 'yes,'" claims a glowing editorial in the Jan. 6, 2013, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
In a development that even the most optimistic casino promoter might not have predicted a decade ago, slot machine play and total casino gambling in Pennsylvania in 2012 brought in more money than any place but Nevada. It even beat out neighboring Atlantic City.
According to Spectrum Gaming Group, an industry consultant, slot machines in Pennsylvania brought in $3.1 billion in revenue during the 12-month period ending Oct. 31. Add table games and the total is $3.8 billion.
In Pennsylvania, slots revenue is taxed at about 55 percent, and proceeds go mainly toward property tax relief. Local governments that host the state's 11 casinos get a significant share. In fact, it was casino revenue that built the Consol Energy Center, replacement for the Civic Arena in Pittsburgh.
A last point I want to make here is that it's no longer relevant to point to previous rejected constitutional amendments to remove the gambling ban and say, "Well, I think we've proved enough times in previous trips to the polls that Floridians believe gambling is wrong for Florida."
The fact is, times have changed.
Most adult Floridians in the 21st century have been to casinos. They've lost, or faded from, their moral objections to gambling. More than half a dozen polls in the last two years tell us Floridians understand the social dangers of gambling, but they've had fun in casinos, they're not addicted and they realize they're benefiting from the revenue and the jobs and the ancillary businesses casinos create.
I'm not half-hearted about high-end casino gambling and the possibilities it brings. I think Florida is missing the boat. And in future columns, I plan to show why.
Reach Nancy Smith at email@example.com or at (850) 727-0859.