The Florida Legislature is looking at rewriting our laws regulating gambling.
The Florida Senate Gaming Committee is holding hearings around the state gathering public input. Some feel that the lawmakers will be enticed to open the door for Las Vegas-style casinos to come into the state.
For decades, Florida had only three legal forms of gambling — horse races, greyhound races and jai alai. Changes in gaming laws began in the 80’s. Congress passed the Federal Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, which allowed American Indian tribes to have gambling facilities in states that have some form of legal gambling.
Nine years ago, voters approved a referendum that allowed slot machines at Dade and Broward pari-mutuel facilities. The state lawmakers later allowed poker rooms in all the pari-mutuel facilities, if approved by the local county commission.
Our lawmakers tell us they want to clean up this patchwork of laws into a more cohesive set of statutes. I’m not sure. There is simply too much money at stake for both the state and the casinos.
Las Vegas Sands Corp., Wynn Resorts Ltd. and MGM Resorts International have all expressed interest in owning casinos in South Florida. In 2011, Malaysian entertainment giant Genting Group paid $236 million to buy 14 acres, including the Miami Herald’s headquarters.
At the time, they announced that if the state laws were changed, they planned to build a $3-billion-plus entertainment and residential project in downtown Miami.
Escambia County hasn’t escaped casino fever. There have been rumors of casinos coming to Northwest Florida ever since the Creek Indians opened Windcreek Casino in Atmore, Ala. In 2009, there was a behind-the-scenes move to bring a bingo casino to Perdido Key until a grassroots effort derailed it. The Creek Indians now have controlling interest in the Pensacola Greyhound Track.
If state lawmakers expand gaming in the state, South Florida might benefit but the poorer counties like Escambia could be a big loser. The gaming interests will come to dominate our local politics, electing those who will serve their interests, and the casinos will draw business away from the rest of the community.
Locals like to visit Biloxi, Miss. and gamble at their casinos. They may envision how great it would be to do the same here. People in my hometown, Greenville, Miss., thought the same thing — only to see their downtown dry up and their infrastructure fall apart.
The Greenville casinos are “Class D” facilities — barges floating on a lake. The top entertainers don’t perform there — though they may get Bubba and his singing pig. All you hear is a great sucking sound as millions of dollars are being pulled out of the community.
If the state allows casinos, I fear the gambling joints in the Florida Panhandle will be more like those in Greenville than Biloxi. The only upside will be that we may get to hear that singing pig.