Too often the Florida Legislature advances a bad idea and keeps adjusting it until enough lawmakers hold their noses and vote for it. But sometimes bad policy is just bad policy that cannot be fixed. That is the case with a bid to allow destination casinos, which would be a bad bet for this state.
The Senate Regulated Industries Committee made it clear Wednesday that it wants changes in the legislation sponsored by Sen. Ellyn Bogdanoff, R-Fort Lauderdale. Bogdanoff already is floating changes that would bring in more revenue for the state and expand casino gambling in South Florida beyond the three destination casinos the bill would allow. In an attempt to win over a few more senators and appease the parimutuel industry, she would change the bill to allow South Florida parimutuels to have the same casino games as the casinos and tax them at the same rate. At least that puts to rest the lie that this legislation would somehow limit and better control gambling.
And forget about keeping expanded gambling in South Florida if this legislation advances. The bill already allows any county to compete for a casino license if it holds a voter referendum on allowing casinos. The lobbyist for Tampa Bay Downs bemoaned the competition the horse track faces from venues such as the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino and asked the committee to remember his client as it talks about expanded gambling.
Don't put much stock in the financial numbers being thrown around, either. Bogdanoff already is offering to up the casino application fee from $25 million to $125 million, and you can bet the casino companies will go higher to get into Florida. The state's first economic analysis of the legislation factors in the loss of revenue from the Seminole gaming compact and properly notes that a significant portion of gamblers would merely shift from parimutuels and the Seminoles to the new casinos. But the estimates also assume there would be three destination casinos in South Florida, and even some of the casino owners question whether there would be enough business to support that many.
The bottom line is there is no price worth risking Florida's ability to attract vacationing families, high-tech businesses and other private investment in return for mega-casinos and quick money. Sen. John Thrasher, R-Jacksonville and a former House speaker, expressed a healthy skepticism at the committee meeting. Other senators should follow his lead and listen to all three Florida Cabinet members — Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, Attorney General Pam Bondi and Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater — who oppose allowing resort casinos.
But this is the way Tallahassee works: Bogdanoff will keep proposing changes and making a bad bill worse in search of votes before the committee considers the casino bill in January. And odds are the committee will be skeptical but reluctant to kill the bill at its first stop.
A more responsible approach would be to defeat the bill as soon as possible and send a clear message that Florida will not gamble away its future. The casino legislation is not going to get any better, no matter how many times it is rewritten.