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Monday, Jun 25, 2018
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Another session, another roll of the dice

Here we go again, another year, another multimillion-dollar effort to expand gambling in Florida.

In full disclosure, as a former state legislator, I have taken numerous votes on the issue. I am neither morally nor religiously opposed to gambling. Likewise, I’m not an enthusiastic supporter of turning Florida into the Las Vegas of the East. That view placed me in an interesting category as votes were being tallied, neither stridently opposed nor closely aligned with any of the pro-expansion factions.

It’s a tough sell every legislative session, yet the issue returns along with the very generous checkbooks of those seeking to influence the Legislature: generous with campaign contributions, generous with expense accounts, generous with multiplying their lobbying teams.

The opposition to any expansion comes from three major players: the religious right, which morally objects to gambling; Disney, which financially objects; and law enforcement, which predicts increased crime. These three groups are politically influential and adept at fighting with grassroots support.

Make no mistake, we already have considerable gambling in Florida.

We have seasonal betting on horse racing, greyhound dog racing and jai alai. We have bingo in our Elks Lodges, Catholic churches and assisted living facilities. We have the Florida Lottery, which went from a weekly drawing in 1998 to numerous drawings and the addition of a multi-state lottery, Powerball.

In 2004, Miami-Dade and Broward county voters approved slot machines in existing parimutuel facilities. Under the Federal Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, Indian tribes are permitted to have any form of gambling that is legal in their state.

The Seminole Tribe entered into a compact with the state of Florida. In return for a five-year contract that gives them exclusive rights to blackjack, baccarat and other table games, the Tribe pays the state roughly $233 million a year from its $2 billion-a-year enterprise, which includes several Hard Rock casinos.

The Miccosukee Tribe seems to be content with slots, poker and bingo. The parimutuels, on the other hand, object to paying a 35-percent tax and to being limited to just slots and poker.

Gambling magnates such as the Malaysian gaming giant the Genting Group have focused their sights on Florida to develop giant resort casinos. They contend these resorts would attract large conventions and greatly increase business tourism.

They make their case for expansion on the benefits from development: increased sales tax revenue; expanded property tax rolls; construction jobs; and the benefits of expanded gambling: thousands of permanent jobs, a boost in tourism, top-notch entertainers and a cut of the gaming revenue for the state.

Any move the Legislature makes has domino effects in multiple directions.

If the state allows other parties to offer expanded gaming, it breaks the exclusive compact with the Seminole Tribe, forgoing the $233 million annual payment. However, the five-year contract is coming to an end, and the state could renegotiate. The Seminole Tribe may lose exclusivity but would be able to pick up craps and roulette without paying the state. No skin off their noses.

In the 2012 session, the Republican-controlled Legislature failed to pass a bill allowing major casinos in South Florida. But the pro-expansion players are doubling down. According to a Florida Times-Union story, they contributed $1.4 million to political campaigns and committees in the 2012 campaign cycle compared to $2.8 million in the 2014 cycle.

Instead of counting cards, they’re counting votes. And based on the contributions to the governor’s political committee, they’re hoping he’ll be their ace in the hole.

So what are the odds?

Polls show Floridians are evenly split on casino gambling, but those who are opposed feel much stronger about their position. These individuals tend to be older, more religious and more conservative. In other words, Republican.

In an election year, Republican legislators fearing a primary challenge might find themselves between a rock and a hard place.

The Florida Chamber of Commerce joined the Sheriff’s Association, Disney and the Christian Coalition in opposition, making it more difficult for Republicans, especially Orlando-area Republicans, to vote for expansion. The No Casinos group is organized and working in tandem with the other members of the opposition to decry the crime, corruption, addiction and poverty associated with gambling.

The pro-gambling players have competing interests and do not work as a cohesive group, with each trying to cut their own side deals. The issue gets increasingly complicated as the amendments start flying. What they lack in unanimity they make up with in financial resources. You can expect them to feed the kitties of many legislative campaigns between now and the start of the legislative session.

It will take a coalition of Democrats, moderate Republicans and South Florida legislators to deal the gambling interests a winning hand. It’s more likely to pass in the Florida Senate. I wouldn’t bet the House on it.

Paula Dockery is a syndicated columnist who served in the Florida Legislature for 16 years as a Republican from Lakeland.

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