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Casinos: a bad bet for business

Gambling casinos come in all sizes and styles, from the aristocratic ambiance of Monte Carlo to the enormous glitz of Atlantic City to the street sleaze of Las Vegas, where even corner drugstores have slot machines. What they have in common is that the house never loses.

That bears remembering as Florida begins yet another debate on legalizing this form of gambling. The people promoting casinos are promising a cornucopia of benefits, ranging from more tourism and tax money for the state to more business for the stores and hotels near casino sites. They make it sound so virtuous you'd think they were talking up the United Way.

But while it can be taken for granted that those who get in on the business will win, it is not so certain that the state will.

This is no brief for protecting the gullible. If people enjoy throwing their money away, there are limits to what a democratic society can do about it. Private gambling might as well be decriminalized.

Commercial, professional gambling is a different proposition, in that it reflects in a highly public way on the character of the state that tolerates it. Whether it would be good for Florida is not the open-and-shut case that the casino promoters assert. Short-term yields in tourism could be more than offset, in the long run, by discouraging the industrial growth that has got to come if Florida is to be more than just a nice place to visit.

If casinos are to be defeated, it will have to be on that basis. The old moral arguments about gambling just don't wash any longer. The leadership will have to come from the business community, not the churches, and the debate will have to turn not on whether gambling is sinful but simply on whether it would be good business for the rest of us.

So far, the promoters, known as Proposition for Limited Casinos Inc., (PLC) have been scoring unanswered points. But Jack Eckerd, who led the last campaign against casinos eight years ago, says he's confident someone will come forward in time to organize the other side.

Whether Florida would be helped or hurt by casinos is only one of the issues that needs serious debate. The other is whether what's being proposed now is the right approach. To write a casino scheme into the Constitution, where only another constitutional amendment could change it, seems to me to be using the Constitution for base purposes.

Attorney General Bob Butterworth has said the Constitution precludes casino gambling. He's an attorney and I'm not, but there is at least some room to wonder whether the Supreme Court would agree with him. The court did reach a different result some years ago in a split decision upholding the bingo statute. If Butterworth is right, then the Constitution would have to be amended. But that doesn't necessarily mean PLC's petition goes about it properly.

For one thing, each of the existing 30 horse tracks, dog tracks and jai alai frontons would be guaranteed a casino license. What makes them so special, beyond the fact that they spent heavily to defeat the last two casino referendums? Though PLC talks of enhancing the state's take from parimutuel taxes, this provision is, transparently, a shrewd move to co-opt the tracks.

Secondly, why then limit the parimutuels' casinos to 75,000 square feet, when no such restriction would apply to the other casinos, up to eight of them, authorized by PLC's amendment?

"We're afraid it will destroy our core business, which is greyhound racing, and then the big boys will come in a couple of years down the road and we won't be able to compete with them," says Vey Weaver, general manager of St. Petersburg's Derby Lane, who says his track wasn't consulted before the proposal surfaced.

Thirdly, why specify that the casinos must be "privately owned"? Suppose the state thought it could make more money and run them more honestly itself? If tourism is the object, it shouldn't matter who owns them.

Fourthly, what happens if the Legislature and the governor deadlock over the enabling and taxing legislation? The amendment says the Legislature "shall" implement it, but it's easy to envision a well-lobbied Legislature coming in low on taxes and light on regulation, in which case any self-respecting governor would have to use his veto. Would the casino promoters then be asking the Supreme Court to step in, and would we want our high court in the casino business?

Initiative petitions are necessarily ambiguous; the Constitution limits them to single subjects. That's because a Constitution is not to be tampered with lightly. If there were a genuine public demand for casinos in this state, as opposed to the artificial clamor that the promoters hope to create, the Legislature sooner or later would respond to it. This petition leaves too much to chance. The wise citizen's better bet is to refuse to sign it.

Martin Dyckman is associate editor of the Times.