Tuesday, January 23, 2018
Business

Romano: Florida residents have always said no to gambling. So why are we expanding it?

A boring confession:

I don't feel all that passionate about gambling. Not enough to rail against it, not enough to rabidly support it.

In that respect, the details of the governor's proposed compact with the Seminole Tribe don't have me on the edge of my seat. Nor do the myriad amendments and suggestions made in a state House committee meeting on Tuesday.

But here's something I do feel strongly about:

Fair play.

And it looks to me like the governor and the Legislature are subverting the wishes of voters with these proposed gambling expansions, if not legally, then certainly in spirit.

The concept of Florida as Big Neon Casino State has been brought before voters as a constitutional amendment three different times since 1978 and defeated each time. Defeated, actually, with spectacular ease. The closest vote was 68-32 in 1994.

Since then, the state has approached gambling expansion from a different direction. Instead of asking voters for sweeping approval, the state has expanded gambling in small and seemingly inconsequential ways.

On its own, each expansion can be seen as logical and (depending on your point of view) relatively harmless. But we're getting to the point where Florida is looking a lot like the gambling state that voters have repeatedly said they didn't want.

Now, it's entirely possible that times have changed.

Maybe voters feel differently than they did in the 1990s. Maybe the demographics have shifted so much that a majority of the state's residents are now totally fine with gambling.

I got no problem with that.

But the governor and the Legislature need to make sure that's the case before they agree to take Florida down this latest road.

Because anything short of a statewide ballot measure feels like cheating.

"We were concerned they might try to expand gambling, either on or off Seminole land,'' said John Sowinski, president of the lobbying group No Casinos. "This compact expands it in both ways.''

Here are the basic highlights in the proposed compact:

Seminole casinos will be allowed to add craps and roulette for the first time. And some parimutuel tracks will be allowed to operate without dog or horse racing, which essentially turns them into mini-casinos. It also gets the state ready to add slot machines at parimutuel facilities outside of Miami-Dade and Broward counties.

Does any of that substantially change gambling in Florida?

Not really. But it does move us in a direction where gambling is more and more accessible and prevalent. And, a few years from now, we'll undoubtedly take another step or two in that direction.

There is already a case waiting to be heard by the state Supreme Court that would allow slot machines in Gadsden County, which would open the door for the rest of the state.

And if they add craps and roulette in Seminole casinos, virtually the only thing that will separate us from Las Vegas will be sports betting and Celine Dion shows. And how long will it be before Tallahassee suggests that drastic step?

The problem is that, for the past 20 years, each expansion has led to another.

We ask for more money from the Seminoles. So the Seminoles ask for more gaming. And then the parimutuels complain they're not being treated fairly, so they get something in return. And then the horsemen scream they're being squeezed out, and so money is funneled in their direction.

And, hey, maybe that's what Florida residents want.

Maybe the tourism industry (which seems to be the driving force behind the No Casinos group) is wrong about gambling damaging the state's image. And maybe residents don't care that increased gambling can be disproportionately harmful for poorer residents.

Maybe Florida voters in 2016 have a completely different mind-set than they did in 1978. Or 1986. Or 1994. But the only way we'll know is by asking.

Until then, any further expansion of gambling is just a sneaky way of ignoring what voters have made exceptionally clear.

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