LAKELAND — The major players will have their say on the future of gambling in Florida, but a Wednesday hearing in Lakeland provided an outlet for mom-and-pop players who just want to be left alone so they can drop a few quarters into a slot machine.
“My girlfriends and I go all the time and we have a wonderful time,” Helen DeMarco of Tampa told members of the state Senate Committee on Gaming. “I don’t view it as gambling. The bottom line is that it’s good, wholesome fun.”
DeMarco was among a handful of senior Tampa women who paraded to the microphone at George Jenkins High School Auditorium to tell the panel not to legislate away their hobby. The Senate committee will prepare legislation for next spring’s legislative session rewriting the state’s gambling laws and consider whether to allow “destination” super-casinos in South Florida.
“So long as it’s legal and if we have a choice, we want to exercise the choice to gamble or not to gamble as adults,” said Hilda Oreieres, another Tampa senior who frequents the local Hard Rock Hotel & Casino.
The state Legislature has wrestled with gaming in Florida since the state’s storied pari-mutuel industry – jai-alai and the racing of horses and dogs – began faltering decades ago. Meantime, Indian tribes such as Florida’s Seminoles have succeeded wildly with reservation casinos, including the complex on Interstate 4 outside Tampa.
The Senate committee states on its website that laws and tax policies have not kept pace with changes in the gaming industry, and “layers of exceptions and patches are not working well to promote the state’s overall economic and social welfare.”
Members of the committee got an idea of the magnitude of their task on Wednesday, through comments by horse and dog breeders’ associations, track representatives, experts on compulsive gambling, members of greyhound rescue groups, law enforcement officers, proprietors of shut-down internet cafés and operators of pari-mutuel parks with slots, without slots, and those who want slots.
They heard from 69 speakers in Lakeland. Lawmakers are now also armed with a $400,000 report on the state of gaming in Florida prepared by Spectrum Gaming, a New Jersey research group. It runs 708 pages.
The sharpest divide in the Florida debate has shaped up between the Disney and other theme parks and related industries in Central Florida, who oppose expanded gambling and so-called “destination casinos,” and some of the biggest names in gaming, including the Genting Group of Malaysia, casino magnate Steve Wynn and Las Vegas Sands, all of whom have expressed interest in building mega-casinos in South Florida.
While those groups weren’t present by name at Wednesday’s hearing, the regional divide was evident.
Orange County Mayor Teresa Jacobs said the Orlando area has worked hard to build a reputation as a family-friendly tourism destination while expanding in medicine, high-tech industries and innovation.
“When I think of high-tech, when I think of the creative class, I do not think of gambling,” Jacobs said.
Jillianne Pierce, public policy director for the Central Florida Hotel & Lodging Association, toed the regional line. “Perception of a community is critical to its success,” Pierce said. The state continues to shatter tourism records, she said, adding, “Florida does not need casinos to attract tourists or economic growth.”
Many of the advocates for expanded gambling cited jobs and the potential economic impact. Carl Schwing, city manager in Bonita Springs, said to “re-purpose” the Naples-Fort Myers dog track would create hundreds of construction jobs and 500 permanent jobs paying above-average salaries with a gaming center up and running.
Jerry Custin, president and chief executive of the Upper Tampa Bay Chamber of Commerce, spoke on behalf of Tampa Bay Downs, the 87-year-old Oldsmar horse track that would like to add slot machines.
“I ask that while you are making the tough decisions in the coming months, you protect our local economy by protecting a long-standing, stable, committed business,” Custin said. “Give them the opportunity to compete on an even playing field in the market.”
State Sen. Tom Lee, a Republican from Brandon, said Wednesday’s hearing provided valuable input.
“We hear from a lot of ‘suits’ in Tallahassee,” Lee told the crowd of about 100. “Sometimes it’s easy to forget that what we do up there can really have an impact.”
Additional public hearings have been scheduled for Nov. 4 in Tallahassee, Nov. 14 in Pensacola, and Nov. 15 in Jacksonville.