Bob Sparks: A generation later, Floridians more open to gaming

In 2014, Florida’s legislators will make a significant policy decision when they decide whether to give the green light for an expansion of gambling.  Both sides of the issue are well armed.

Supporters of expanded gambling have lobbyists and public relations people.  Those against more casinos have plenty of advocates, including a number of legislators.  Each chamber of the Legislature has a special committee to hear from paid and non-paid advocates for both sides.

Taxpayers ponied up $400,000 for an extensive report from an entity known as Spectrum Gaming Group.  The report makes no official recommendations but instead provides facts and projections on a number of scenarios.

 Among the choices are keeping the current situation, or increasing slot machines to pari-mutuels outside of Miami-Dade and Broward County, or opening new casinos in different parts of the state.

Expanded gambling, while not likely according to legislative staffers with whom I’ve spoken, is actually receiving serious attention.  Over the years, pro-gambling entities have spent a lot of money lobbying for expanded gambling and this seems to be the session to either call or fold.

Florida’s gambling evolution has come a long way in 28 years.

On Nov. 4, 1986 Florida voters approved a lottery with 63.6 percent of the vote.  At the same time, casino gambling lost, getting only 31.7 percent of the vote.

How could two gambling issues have such polar opposite results?  The packaging had much to do with it.  Casino gambling at that time was personified by Robert Preston in the movie “The Music Man,” when he uttered these unforgettable lyrics:

“Right here in River City.  Trouble with a capital ‘T’, which rhymes with ‘P’ and that stands for pool.”

On the other hand, a lottery was offered as a boon to education.  If passed, education would receive hundreds of millions of dollars in education “enhancements.”  Vote for the lottery, they begged.  It’s for the children!

On Election Day, two-thirds of Floridians voted for those enhancements.  What they got was a legislative shell game.  Very quickly, the Legislature took money out of the budget for other spending, and then replaced it with lottery money.  Our elected officials dealt from the bottom of the deck!

Lessons were learned.  Fast forward to 2013-14 and casino gambling is now packaged as an enhancement.  Jobs, tax revenue, economic growth are all part of the packaging.

The scenarios contained in the Spectrum report range from modest economic activity to a scenario creating about 50,000 jobs, increasing the Gross State Product by more than $6 billion and generating $1.67 billion in gaming taxes.  The latter scenario would put Florida in “the major leagues” of casino gambling (up to 28 sites).

Despite noble efforts to diversify our economy, Florida depends on visitors to help us pay our bills.  Things that attract tourists and their disposable income are important to us.  We want that income disposed of here.

A credible economic case can be made, perhaps not for 28 new facilities, but for a few spread around the state, especially north of  Interstate 4.  Thinking beyond casinos, there are opportunities for big time entertainers and high profile indoor sporting events.

Construction jobs, followed by hotel and restaurant jobs, would help the state’s economy.  Naturally, the casinos would require paid dealers and other gaming personnel.

Some other positives not covered in the Spectrum report include new public sector jobs with the expansion of the Department of Business and Professional Regulation.  Florida’s universities could attract hospitality management students from around the country, who would put their skills to work in the state after graduation.

Many argue that legalized gambling harms society and their point is taken.  But the Spectrum report concludes there is great difficulty in coming up with an “operational definition of social cost.”

If one can risk a significant portion of a paycheck by walking into the nearest Publix and buying 100 lottery tickets, a casino located 100 miles away can’t be blamed for ruining society.  The report concludes that “scientific literature suggests that gambling expansion will not automatically translate into an enduring set of expanded gambling problems for mature gambling jurisdictions.”

In the end, there may be little or no expansion of gaming, but to even have a reasonable debate a generation after a crushing defeat at the polls is remarkable.  Attitudes are changing, but how much?

If expanded gaming is approved, the mistakes of 1986 must not be repeated.  In fact, perhaps the additional revenue can keep the broken promise of education enhancements.

Perhaps it is a roll of the dice, but the odds are the state would roll sevens before snake eyes.

Bob Sparks

Bob Sparks is a former political consultant who previously served as spokesman for the Republican Party of Florida, Department of Environmental Protection and the Florida Attorney General. He was a senior adviser to former Gov. Charlie Crist. Before entering politics, he spent nearly two decades in professional baseball administration. He can be reached at [email protected] and Twitter @BobSparksFL.


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