To Florida Legislature, be cautious on expanding gambling in family-friendly vacation state

July 7, 2013 

In what must have come as an unexpected and unpleasant surprise to certain legislators, a new report states that an expansion of gambling in Florida will undermine the state's longtime image as a vacation destination.

The Legislature commissioned a comprehensive study of gambling ahead of plans to rewrite state gaming laws next year. A New Jersey-based gambling consultant company known as friendly to the casino industry wrote that "expanded gambling may fundamentally change the state of Florida as a place to live and visit."

The pro-gambling forces in the Legislature must have been stunned that the Spectrum Gaming Group came to such a conclusion in the first part of its report.

Tourism is Florida's most valuable cash crop. As a family-friendly state with Orlando's theme parks as the jewel in the crown, the Legislature cannot afford to inflict damage on an industry that generates $72 billion in spending and employs more than 1 million workers in direct travel-related jobs.

Florida's three gambling sectors -- the lottery, pari-mutuel outlets and Native American casinos -- are small by comparison with direct employment at a total of almost 16,000.

Even though the Legislature banned Internet cafes and gambling arcades this year, loopholes in state law and lax regulation have allowed gaming interests to expand over the past few years. Spectrum's initial report also states: "Intentionally or not, the policies established by lawmakers -- or lack thereof -- play a critical role in the evolution and expansion of gaming. The industry rarely shrinks, and quite often, expands ..."

Let that be a warning to Floridians.

The second part of the almost $400,000 in taxpayer money for the Spectrum study -- on gaming's economic impact on communities -- is expected in October. The Legislature will be taking up the gambling issue next March in its regular session.

While the state must adopt measures to close loopholes in current law, resort casinos are another matter. Indian tribes, which operate independently of state policy with federal protection, have already established such casinos. The Seminole Hard Rock casino in Tampa is one of the largest in the world.

The Seminole tribe entered into an agreement with the state several years ago, paying Florida $1 billion over five years for the exclusive rights to offer blackjack and other table games. That compact expires in 2015, opening the door for the Legislature to allow other casinos.

For several years, gaming interests have been pouring big money into Florida to persuade lawmakers to abrogate that compact. The Genting Group, a major Malaysian-based casino company, has been spending millions on lobbying and political contributions to get the Legislature to allow non-native casinos. The firm hopes to open a destination resort casino on Miami's waterfront in the old Miami Herald building, which it bought for $236 million in 2011.

Spectrum's October report on gaming's economic impacts must be more exact than a state estimate from December 2011. The Revenue Estimating Conference predicted the state would reap as much as $455 million in revenue over four years by allowing three destination casinos in South Florida. But that was a big maybe, and such fuzzy math is unacceptable.

Despite gambling's mystical allure of a treasure in revenue, jobs and more, the Legislature must tread lightly on whether to allow casinos. The potential harm to Florida's family-friendly brand of vacationing must play a significant role in the decision.

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An Internet link to the Spectrum Gaming Group's 320-page gambling impact study can be found with this editorial on www.bradenton.com/opinion.

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