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Report: Only minor economic lift from more gambling in Florida

TALLAHASSEE — Expanding gambling in Florida would have a lukewarm effect at best on the state’s economy, according to the latest draft of a comprehensive study commissioned by state lawmakers and released late Tuesday.

For example, the presence of a single “destination” casino-resort could generate an additional 2,700 jobs and more than 900 new businesses in Hillsborough County, the report said.

But Hillsborough has a population of more than 1.2 million, and “the expectation is that the economic impacts of casinos in highly populated counties are relatively minor,” said the draft report, produced by New Jersey-based Spectrum Gaming Group.

The final version of the report was due Tuesday but has been delayed another 30 days as Spectrum and Amy Baker, the Legislature’s chief economist, work out their differences in calculating gambling’s likely economic impact on the state.

Spectrum managing director Michael Pollock wrote in an undated letter to Senate President Don Gaetz and House Speaker Will Weatherford that he needed more time “to fully review the results of the (economic) models, which require more detailed examination to ensure their accuracy.”

They granted an extension to Nov. 1, Gaetz said in a letter to state senators.

The “vast majority of the report is in final form,” Gaetz said, and “the Legislature has not and will not request that any outcomes be changed.”

Spectrum will be paid nearly $389,000 for the report.

Lawmakers want to use the full report, as well as information from a series of public workshops, as Florida’s blueprint for growth when it comes to gambling, including whether to allow Las Vegas-style destination casino-resorts. A major gambling bill could be the dominant political issue during the 2014 legislative session.

Last year, a bill died in the Legislature that would have permitted the construction of three destination hotel-casinos in South Florida.

Assuming Florida’s economy stays healthy, the expansion of casinos “is most likely to have at least a mildly positive impact on the state,” Tuesday’s draft report said. “We find no evidence … that casinos would cause harm to either county-level or the state-level economy.”

The draft went on to say “casinos tend to have a positive impact … but these benefits decrease the larger the county,” in terms of population.

“This makes intuitive sense, because a particular casino will be a smaller component of a larger local economy,” it said. “We would expect greater economic benefits from casinos located in less populated areas.”

If the Legislature does allow the number of casinos to expand, it could impact how much money the state receives from the Seminole Tribe.

Under the current compact between Florida and the tribe, the state stands to earn more than $1 billion for granting the Seminoles exclusive rights to operate Vegas-style casinos, including the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Tampa.

If the state expands gambling, the tribe can pay a reduced amount or cut its payments entirely under the terms of the agreement. The tribe’s gambling operations contributed an estimated $221 million to the state’s treasury last year alone. The agreement expires in 2015.

Tribal spokesman Gary Bitner declined comment on the draft report Tuesday night.

“I can say the Tampa Hard Rock is the largest and most successful of the tribe’s seven casinos,” he said.

A meeting of the Senate gaming committee to discuss the report will proceed as planned on Monday, and public workshops are still set for Oct. 23 in Coconut Creek, Oct. 30 in Lakeland, Nov. 14 in Pensacola and Nov. 15 in Jacksonville.

Overall, Spectrum’s projections suggest “that the introduction of casinos, whether standalone destination resorts, or addition of slot machines at existing pari-mutuels, will lead to modest economic benefits,” the draft report said.

Lawmakers may consider allowing pari-mutuel centers across the state, which include Tampa Bay Downs and St. Petersburg’s Derby Lane, to offer slot machines and table games. Slots now are allowed at pari-mutuels in Broward and Miami-Dade counties.

Peter Berube, Tampa Bay Downs’ general manager, previously told The Tampa Tribune he wanted slot machines to give his thoroughbred track “parity with my in-state rivals down south.” Berube could not be reached Tuesday night.

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