Less than five months before the Florida legislative session opens, state lawmakers are again thinking about expanding gambling. But a new study finds it isn't worth the gamble: Florida wouldn't necessarily add much state revenue or create significantly more jobs, and money would likely be siphoned from existing businesses. The state should not encourage an industry that makes money by taking advantage of its residents and creates all sorts of social drawbacks.
Twenty months after a pair of casino companies failed to win legislative approval to build destination casinos in South Florida, gambling interests of all stripes are again making a full-court press to change Florida's gambling regulations. Big contributions from gambling interests inside and outside the state are already flowing into next year's political campaigns. And the first of four Senate hearings last week underscored the special interest activity. Even antigambling lawmakers have bought the industry spin that new regulation could mean a consolidated industry. That would be a first.
Genting and Sands, the two big casino concerns that took center stage in the 2012 session, are now open to plans that might involve them buying up parimutuel licenses in exchange for the ability to open destination casinos. Parimutuels are looking for their own ways to expand offerings. And the timing is ripe. Florida's contract with the Seminole Indian Tribe, which gives the tribe exclusive rights to offer card games like blackjack in exchange for $1 billion in total payments, expires in 2015. (The tribe's exclusive right to slot machines outside Miami-Dade and Broward counties continues for 25 years.)
All this is set against a backdrop in which Florida has already expanded gambling through lax regulation. The most obvious case involved Internet cafes, which operated for years before lawmakers finally shut them down after a major operator in Jacksonville faced federal racketeering charges. That case ultimately tainted then-Lt. Gov. Jennifer Carroll, who had done public relations work for the company. But less noticed is how some parimutuels have been exploiting ambiguities in state law to expand their operations. And some Internet cafe owners are reopening their doors, claiming they reprogrammed their machines to comply with Florida law.
Florida has seen this dance time and again from an industry where the only clear winner is the house. The Senate study produced by Spectrum Gaming Group quietly points to the risks. In contrast to Genting's contentions in 2012 that its marketing would dramatically increase the number of international gamblers coming to the state, the study finds Floridians still would make up the overwhelming share of gamblers. Part of the reason state revenue would increase is that money residents previously spent on nongambling enterprises such as retail or restaurants would flow to gambling — which is more heavily taxed.
Lawmakers are right that gambling regulation needs a tune-up. But it's hard to trust that somehow, this time, Tallahassee will find the discipline to say no to promises of fast cash from a high-tax industry that preys on Floridians eager for a thrill and fast money (which rarely comes). The Senate's consultant outlined why it's not worth the gamble. Legislators need to listen.