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Gaming gains require tourists, expert says

TALLAHASSEE — The Legislature’s chief economist said the state can make “significant new money” from gambling only if Florida can attract out-of-state visitors who come specifically for casinos.

The economist, Amy Baker, spoke with interviewer Trimmel Gomes for a “Florida NewsMakers” program on Nov. 14. The program is produced by Sachs Media Group and distributed through the YouTube website and state news outlets.

After the delivery of a 700-page study and four public workshops held throughout the state, lawmakers now will deliberate the future of gambling in Florida.

They likely will consider a dizzying array of possibilities, including allowing Las Vegas-style destination casino-resorts. A gambling bill could be debated during the 2014 legislative session, which starts in March.

Rep. Rob Schenck, R-Spring Hill, chairs the House Select committee on gaming; Sen. Garrett Richter, R-Naples, leads the Senate’s gaming committee.

State senators will meet in committee next month to review and discuss what they learned during the workshops and from comments submitted in writing, spokeswoman Katie Betta said.

House spokesman Ryan Duffy said members may begin their own hearings in January.

An agreement known as the Seminole Compact guarantees the Seminole Tribe of Florida exclusive rights to offer certain Las Vegas-style games outside Miami-Dade and Broward counties.

If they lose that exclusivity through expanded gambling, the Seminoles, who operate Tampa’s Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino and other facilities, can stop paying.

Their 2013-14 payment alone is estimated at $233 million, with $226 million going to the state and $7 million to local governments.

The study, commissioned by the Legislature, suggested a minor economic lift overall from more gambling in Florida.

Baker, who worked with the hired consultants on the gambling study’s economic analysis, said people “have one pocketbook,” and thus have “only so much money they can spend on amusement and entertainment.”

“When they make the decision what they’re going to do tonight or over the weekend, they’re making a choice to go out to dinner or to go to a casino and gamble,” she said in the interview. “So that means, overall, you’re just shifting activity from one place to another.

“On net, the state doesn’t really bring in money from that,” she added. “The only way we can see significant new money is if you attract people from other states (and) the only reason they’re coming to Florida is to go to a casino.”

The Las Vegas Sands Corp. specializes in “integrated resorts,” offering rooms, convention space, high-end retail and celebrity chef restaurants, and has long been interested in building a mega-resort in Florida.

A bill died in the Legislature last year that would have allowed three new destination hotel-casinos in South Florida.

“I don’t think it’s a secret what we’re looking for,” Sands lobbyist Nick Iarossi told lawmakers earlier this month.

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