Jac VerSteeg: Why casinos might be out of luck in Florida

Miami Herald political editor Sergio Bustos provided the most fascinating tidbit at Tuesday’s Media Panel sponsored by TaxWatch and held at Gunster law firm in Fort Lauderdale.

The topic was gambling in Florida. Will the state reach a new compact with the Seminoles? Will the interests pushing for Las Vegas-style resort casinos finally get clearance to enter the Florida market?

Bustos said that Senate President Andy Gardiner met recently with Herald editors and told them that, if he could, he’d do away with the Florida Lottery.

A Senate president who would like to pull that plug clearly would have no interest in letting gambling interests build their glittering palaces in the Sunshine State. As Bustos noted, ironically his own newspaper sold its downtown Miami site to one of those interests – Genting – in anticipation of legislation that would let it build a casino there.

No such luck for Genting likely this year with Gardiner on watch.

Former Florida U.S. Sen. George LeMieux moderated the panel, which in addition to Bustos included South Florida Sun Sentinel editorial page editor Rosemary O’Hara, Palm Beach Post political reporter and columnist George Bennett and yours truly.

Just to drop names, former Attorney General Bob Butterworth was in the audience. TaxWatch President and CEO Dominic Calabro served as emcee.

LeMieux noted that the Legislature last year refused to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act and asked Bennett if there’s “any chance Florida revisits that decision this session.”

“No,” Bennett said simply.

Bennett later allowed that there might be some interest in the Senate in providing more health care to the poor, so long as “it’s not calling it Medicaid expansion.” But he doubts the House has any interest in going along.

O’Hara lamented the “incredible attacks that have been made on the Sunshine Law,” and LeMieux asked me to expand on that. I said, “For open government, the governor has actually done us a backhand favor” with his treatment of Mike Crews, the former Department of Corrections chief and Gerald Bailey, the former head of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. Both have accused Gov. Rick Scott of playing politics with their departments, and there are serious questions of Sunshine Law violations in the decision to dismiss Bailey. “I think that has focused things so much on his level that there’s going to have to be some sort of accounting for that,” I said.

However, I was more pessimistic that the Legislature would provide more openness about its own machinations. With more money to spend, there are more deals to be made and more details to hide. And, frankly, with fewer journalists to cover the action, more backroom deals will be successful.

When Bustos commented that a legislative committee had declined to settle the issue of how to distribute $7 million annually for sports teams and stadiums, LeMieux – a former chief of staff to Gov. Charlie Crist and a Tallahassee veteran – said, “There wouldn’t be any more chance for fund-raising if they decided on it today.”

LeMieux’s point, by the way, also applies big time to the gambling question – why conclude an issue when it’s so lucrative for politicians?

Education is a big topic for the Legislature and for the TaxWatch panel. Bennett poked holes in Gov. Scott’s claim that his proposed budget offers the highest per-pupil spending in history – “With inflation, it’s really not higher.” But Bennett is not sure lawmakers are willing to spend the projected budget surplus on education. “With this surplus money, I think most of the legislators kind of see it as this kind of mad money” that can be used “for some tax cuts here and spend some money there.” He predicted an increase in per-pupil funding, but maybe not as high as the governor wants.

I pointed out that the real education focus this year is not on per-pupil funding but on a reduction in high-stakes testing, which already is happening. Gov. Scott just issued an executive order suspending a language arts test for 11th-graders.

LeMieux then said that “the elephant in the room is Gov. Bush. …What political pressure or sensitivities will there be in reducing a lot of testing while he’s looking to run for president?”

My answer was that if the Legislature quickly and effectively cuts high-stakes testing, it could remove the issue for Bush, who is responsible for Florida’s system. But if the Legislature makes a drawn-out mess of testing and doesn’t remove the consequences for teachers and students facing new Common Core-based tests, it could be a big issue for Bush.

O’Hara said, “Without a question the consequences of this test ought to be put on hold.” She noted that teachers and students will be facing a test they have yet to see. “Teachers are in the middle of teaching this year’s class. They don’t even know what the standards are that they’re going to be held to this year.”

When the topic of medical marijuana came up, O’Hara predicted the Legislature would do nothing. “They do not want to be seen as passing anything that legalizes a drug.” I predicted the Legislature would try to at least fix the problems with implementing the Charlotte’s Web legislation that already passed.

On another topic, O’Hara said Florida’s prison system is “a mess” and, “It’s just a moral imperative that Florida do something about it.” Bennett – whose newspaper and the Miami Herald have been at the forefront of reporting on prison abuses – said there is interest in providing more money but also a concern that the Department of Corrections is in no shape to properly spend any money it’s given.

Bustos, whose newspaper documented the case of a mentally ill inmate who was scalded to death – “You always think you’ve seen the worst and then you hear another case” – was moderately optimistic that the Legislature could not ignore the horrors that have been uncovered.

Legislation to allow concealed weapons on campus was the final topic. I predicted it has a chance to pass. The NRA always wants another trophy on the wall, and that’s what this would be. O’Hara was more adamant that it will pass even though the presidents of Florida’s universities have said, “This is a bad bill; this is dangerous.”

Speculating about what the Legislature will do always is fun and fascinating. Covering what the Legislature actually does is fun, fascinating and frustrating. We’ll find out starting March 3 what our lawmakers will do on these and a ton of other topics.

Jac Wilder VerSteeg is editor of Context Florida. Column courtesy of Context Florida.

Jac VerSteeg


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