Friday, April 20, 2018
Politics

Romano: When $2.2 billion in revenue isn't enough for free parking while you gamble

Some fights are just not worth the effort.

And if this was a mere tug-of-war over $10 in your pocket, then I would suggest the aggravation was not commensurate with the potential victory.

But what if this was about something larger?

What if this was about being taken advantage of in your own hometown? Of the folks in Tallahassee selling you down the river? What if it was a simple question of fair play?

Because the idea of the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino now charging patrons $10 to park feels a little like state-sponsored price gouging to me.

Here's what I mean:

The Seminole Tribe has a near-monopoly on certain forms of gambling. Not because it offers better tables, dealers or odds, but because the state has passed laws to that effect.

Now, it's important to point out that the Seminoles pay dearly for that exclusivity. In the compact that expired in 2015, the Tribe was paying the state around $200 million a year.

But guess what.

That $200 million is a fraction of the money flowing through those casino floors. A recent deposition suggests the Tribe is clearing $2.2 billion in revenues annually from gambling in Florida.

And let me be clear, there's nothing wrong with that. There's also nothing wrong with the Seminoles working on ideas to push their profits higher. That's just good business.

But state laws have played a huge role in the success of those casinos, and those laws need to cut both ways.

If it helps, think of Florida as a referee. State leaders are supposed to make sure everyone is treated fairly in this deal. And considering the Seminoles are stacking billions, it would seem this monopoly is working out quite well for them.

Meanwhile, you're getting stuck for a new $10 charge.

Pardon me, but that seems like overkill.

The state has seen fit to rig the system so that if you want to play certain games — let's say blackjack — you have no choice but to go to a Seminole casino. That means the state is an active participant in this monopoly and needs to take responsibility for any abuses. Florida has limits in its authority on Seminole land, but managing gambling expansion gives the state a huge hammer.

Trust me, the Tribe already understands the role lawmakers can play. From 2013 to 2015, the Seminoles spent almost $1 million a year in campaign contributions.

All of which makes this feel like an extension of other state policies that constantly favor corporations over the environment, education and middle-class residents.

The truth is, income inequality is worse in Florida than almost any other place in America. A recent study by the Economic Policy Institute found that income for the top 1 percent of earners in Florida grew 15 percent between 2009 and 2013. For the rest of us, it fell 4.3 percent. That suggests our priorities are already skewed in the wrong direction.

And that's something the governor and lawmakers should keep in mind while negotiating a new compact with the Seminole Tribe. The Legislature has already rejected one deal because it was seen as too friendly for the tribe and too restrictive to parimutuels. The next compact should involve some oversight to protect residents from being taken advantage of.

Now, is a $10 parking charge the worst thing happening in Florida? Not even close. And if you can't afford the $10 to park at the Seminole Hard Rock, then you shouldn't be gambling anyway.

But this really isn't about the 10 bucks. And it isn't about your views on gambling.

This is about a system that continually favors the people and corporations wealthy enough to purchase laws that mean more and more money in their pockets.

And, as it turns out, less and less in your pockets.

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