Like carnival hawkers, the casino industry can spot a sucker even from a world away. That explains the welcome reception for Genting Malaysia and Sands Las Vegas in Tallahassee, where formerly antigambling, family-value Republicans are poised to consider the biggest expansion of gambling in Florida's history. Blinded by promises of big cash in a bad economy, lawmakers desperate to create jobs, revenue and excitement are poised to bet the state's reputation and quality of life. It's a terrible gamble.
Florida voters have rejected allowing full-fledged casinos three times at the ballot box since 1978. No matter. Key lawmakers in the House and Senate, with the tacit support of Gov. Rick Scott, are poised in the session beginning in January to offer a scheme to allow three "resort casinos" in Broward and Miami-Dade counties — without a statewide vote or even a vote in the counties directly affected.
Genting and Sands spin tales of spending billions to build magnificent mini-cities that would employ tens of thousands of Floridians and include world-class hotels and other amenities to lure more tourists to the Sunshine State. A modest 10 percent tax on net revenues is proposed, not nearly enough to offset the negative impact.
Supporters of the plan, including sponsors Sen. Ellyn Bogdanoff, R-Fort Lauderdale, and Rep. Eric Fresen, R-Miami, deflect questions on the societal costs increased gambling brings. Bogdanoff, a former antigambling lawmaker turned casino backer, argues Florida is already a gambling state with horse and dog tracks, bingo parlors, cruises to nowhere, a state lottery and Indian casinos. Supporters claim high-end destination casinos with accompanying resorts and convention centers under intense state regulation are a logical way to increase the state's revenues and create jobs.
But lacking is any analysis of the impact on Florida's tourism industry; the homegrown parimutuel industry, whose 35 percent tax rate contributes to the state's coffers; or the state's compact with the Seminole Indians, which also brings in significant cash. Or of how turning South Florida into a gambling destination on par with Atlantic City could forever alter the state's image and affect its efforts to diversify from a low-paying service economy. Or of how the scheme ultimately would bleed to other parts of the state as Orlando and Tampa Bay seek parity as hotels whine they cannot compete without gambling.
Fortunately, other voices are starting to be heard. The No Casinos group is reforming, and there is burgeoning opposition from the Florida Chamber of Commerce, the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association, Orlando's attractions and even Frank Nero, a former New Jersey county commissioner who is president of Miami-Dade's economic development organization, the Beacon Council. Nero told the Miami Herald earlier this month he now regrets his support of gambling in Atlantic City after seeing the negative economic and social impacts, including an industry that sucked customers and dollars from surrounding businesses and increased prostitution, gambling addiction and organized crime.
Nor is there a sign of any serious consideration in Tallahassee — where earlier this year Scott vetoed money for the state's compulsive gambling outreach program paid for by gambling receipts — of the impact on Florida families and communities. Making it easier for addicted gamblers to access high-stakes games affects not just the gamblers but spouses, children and ultimately society.
Gambling fever grips Tallahassee. Floridians can only hope the majority of rank-and-file lawmakers, along with so-far skeptical House Speaker Dean Cannon of Winter Park, are not played for suckers. This is not just a South Florida issue. No matter how tough the economy, megacasinos and all their accompanying consequences would not make Florida a better place to live.