The Legislature appears poised to roll the dice on Florida's future. This year's rigged game involves repairing Florida's gambling laws while opening the door for South Florida destination casinos — and asking voters to change the state Constitution to require statewide voter approval of any future changes. That raises the stakes for this year's legislative session, and it's a sucker bet. This state needs to bring order to its existing gambling laws, but the answer is not more gambling.
The casino debate has predictably returned in an election year, and the gambling money is flowing into the re-election campaigns for Gov. Rick Scott and state lawmakers. Senate Gaming Committee Chairman Garrett Richter, R-Naples, is promoting 453 pages of gambling legislation that rewrites existing regulations while authorizing two destination casinos in Broward and Miami-Dade counties. It's being sold as an economic boost, but a legislative report suggests otherwise.
Just last year, Spectrum Gaming Group of Atlantic City told lawmakers that Florida is so saturated in gambling that the economic impact of two new destination casinos would be fairly negligible on the state economy. State government stands to gain the most, because gambling is taxed at a higher rate than, say, tourist spending at Disney World. And those gains likely would be on the backs of Florida gamblers, not tourists. Spectrum notes that Florida residents accounted for 93 percent of the $2.4 billion in estimated revenue collected by the state's slot machines at parimutuels and the Indian casinos. And a new study from the Institute for American Values underscores the bet: Nearly half of casino visitors in other states in 2012 were 50 and older — fitting nicely with Florida's demographics.
This isn't just about out-of-state gaming interests wanting more of Floridians' money. The opportunistic parimutuel industry that has long used its political connections to survive also wants help. Florida's horse and dog racing tracks and jai alai venues see a potential opportunity to add slot machines or other options when part of the state's compact with the Seminole Indian Tribe expires next year. Under the five-year provision, signed in 2010 by then-Gov. Charlie Crist, the tribe's Tampa and Hollywood casinos have exclusive rights to slot machines outside Miami-Dade and Broward counties and to banked card games such as blackjack statewide. In exchange, they tribe pays about $230 million a year to the state.
Greyhound track owners also want to get out from under money-losing racing requirements to keep their lucrative card rooms — and lawmakers should address the mistreatment of racing dogs and relax the racing requirements even if they do nothing else this session.
The Senate bill would create a powerful gaming commission with five members appointed by the governor. It would have subpoena power and oversee everything from the state lottery to negotiating the deals to allow the two new South Florida casinos. The bill is full of conflict-of-interest requirements and provisions aimed at preventing board members and employees from moving between the agency and the industry. It also has supposed safeguards aimed at preventing the problems that have surfaced in other states with casinos: The two "destination casinos" would have to train employees to spot customers who may have a gambling problem; provide a plan that protects local businesses; and dedicate just 10 percent of their facilities to gambling.
As a sweetener, voters would be asked to approve a state constitutional amendment that would require statewide voter approval of any future gambling expansion. But this plan tilts too heavily toward the interests of gaming, not Floridians, demonstrating once again the inherent moral hazard when government benefits by encouraging vice.
Conventional wisdom in Tallahassee is that this year's debate is really just a test run for 2015. House Speaker Will Weatherford has said he will not let any bill come before the House unless Gov. Rick Scott starts negotiating with the Seminole Tribe. But even among gambling enthusiasts, there are mixed signals about the ideal outcome of such negotiations. Some want to reapprove the Seminole deal with carve-outs for the new destination casinos. Others believe the state has more to gain by growing an industry that can compete with the tribe's venues.
An honest conversation also should include the social costs. Gambling has the potential to directly and immediately decimate an entire family's financial resources, a crisis that inevitably shifts to the broader society. The more Florida comes to encourage and depend on gamblers losing money to fund government, the more it puts its residents and communities at risk.
Hundreds of pages of regulations and rosy promises of more state revenue and future voter control won't change the bottom line. More gambling doesn't make sense for Florida.