Florida voters aren't sure if they want Las Vegas-style casinos in the state, but they are certain they don't want Tallahassee to make the decision, according to a new poll by the Tampa Bay Times, Miami Herald and Bay News 9.
A staggering 81 percent of likely Florida voters surveyed last week said they believe that any proposed changes to state gambling laws should be decided in a statewide referendum. Only 8 percent were against it.
Voters were about evenly split over the question of whether the state should expand gambling to permit Las Vegas-style casinos. Of those surveyed Jan. 24-26, 44 percent opposed new gambling and 42 percent said they support it. The numbers are within the poll's margin of error of 3.5 percentage points.
"There is a clear division in the state with a majority in southeast Florida in favor, while every other region is nearly evenly divided,'' said Brad Coker, managing director of Mason-Dixon Polling & Research, which conducted the poll.
Florida lawmakers are considering legislation to allow for the development of three $2 billion mega resorts and convention centers that would include full casino games. The proposal also attempts to streamline the state's gambling regulations by creating a Gaming Control Board and imposing new restrictions on operators and limits on future gambling permits.
But as legislators debate the scope of the new proposal, voters don't trust Tallahassee politicians to sort it out, Coker said.
"People are saying they don't like the idea of something this big being a backroom political deal,'' he said. Instead, they're saying, "We want to be able to decide this ourselves and weigh the merits."
The telephone survey of 800 registered Florida voters - all likely to vote in the general election - was conducted Jan. 24-26 for the Tampa Bay Times, Miami Herald, El Nuevo Herald, Bay News 9 and Central Florida News 13. The poll was conducted by Mason-Dixon, a nonpartisan, Jacksonville company.
Juan Perez, 69, a retiree and a Republican from Miami, supports allowing casinos and letting voters decide. "Put it on the ballot. If we win, the government can sign it,'' he said.
As with previous gambling questions, support is strongest in the southeastern corner of the state, where 52 percent of voters surveyed support casino gambling. But in every other region, opponents outnumber supporters by a margin of 7 to 10 percent.
Among racial and ethnic groups, Hispanic voters support casinos, 57-34 percent; black voters are evenly divided, with 41-40 percent; white voters oppose it 47-39 percent.
The promoters of the destination resorts, however, may be onto something as they emphasize the economic development and job creation potential of the plans, Coker said.
A majority of Florida's likely voters - 58 percent - believe that permitting casino gambling will help increase tourism and bring more revenue to the state, while only 12 percent believe it will hurt tourism and reduce revenue. Another 23 percent of voters believe casinos will have no effect.
"The old argument that Florida is a family destination and this will hurt" its reputation no longer resonates with most voters, Coker said. "Culturally, Florida is changing."
He said that if proponents attempt to bypass the reluctant Legislature and pursue a statewide casino referendum, "a case could be made for it,'' Coker said, adding, "it would be an expensive campaign."
Geno Barclay, 64, is one of those who believes that casinos could boost the economy.
"I feel like it would probably be a good idea from what I've seen on it so far,'' said the Port Charlotte retiree and Democrat. "You've got these little Internet cafes that have popped up all over the state. I think you ought to put in something real nice, boost the Florida economy."
John Carew, a Naples retiree and a Republican, also supports the idea.
"I think it would be a good thing,'' he said. "There are millions of retirees down here and it would be very successful in generating income for the state and generating income for people for jobs."
Others, like Mary Lomonaco, 42, an independent voter from Cocoa Beach, are ambivalent.
"Gambling is going to happen whether or not it's legal,'' she said. "I don't think it's going to have either a positive or negative impact on the economy as it stands. Tourists are not going to come to Florida to gamble."
Casino proponents face a wide gender gap, Coker said, with 54 percent of all women surveyed opposed to casino expansion, while men support it by an equal 54 percent.
"I have a feeling that if they bring in casinos and stuff, they're going to bring up some other things, too - like prostitution,'' said Katherine Wrobleski, 71, a Democrat from Leesburg. "People are having such a hard time living from day to day. How can they spend the money to go out and gamble?"
Mary Ellen Klas can be reached at meklas@MiamiHerald.com and on Twitter @MaryEllenKlas.