Money, influence still pushing casinos for Florida

Paul Davies, The Palm Beach Post, 2/24/2014

In fact, the slots are so lucrative casinos often agree to pay a tax as high as 50 percent or more on gambling revenues, provided they are guaranteed a monopoly in a market. Lawmakers often go along with the gambling plans – despite the well-documented social and economic costs – because casinos generate out-sized revenue without raising taxes. Of course, lawmakers are also influenced by the buckets of campaign contributions, lobbyists and PR firms that swarm state capitals. The recent approval of casinos in New York provides a window into how Genting and other gambling interests influenced public policy. As a candidate for governor, Andrew Cuomo never mentioned casinos. But just eight months after taking office, the cornerstone of Cuomo's economic development agenda became casinos.

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Subjects: Gambling, Casinos, Slot Machines

More by: Paul Davies

The push to legalize casinos in Florida is not the result of a public demand for more gambling. In fact, Florida voters rejected efforts to legalize casinos in 1978, 1986 and 1994. Just two years ago, lawmakers nixed a plan to bring three casinos to South Florida.

But in Florida and other states the gambling industry – like an aggressive form of cancer – keeps coming back. Ohio voters rejected three casino ballot measures since 1990. But the gambling interests returned in 2008 and spent close to $50 million to finally tilt a referendum legalizing casinos.

For the gambling industry, no never means no. Instead, it means more campaign contributions and lobbyists. Different gambling proposals get floated until something sticks – as seen by the grab bag of options getting raised in Tallahassee.

The entire process is haphazard at best. At worst, it has a corrosive and corruptive influence on public policy.

One of the biggest players is the Genting Group, the Malaysian-based casino giant. In 2011, Genting announced plans to build the world's biggest casino resort on Biscayne Bay after purchasing the Miami Herald property.

Genting's $3 billion resort was going to include three hotels, a convention center, more than 50 restaurants and a swimming lagoon the size of 12 Olympic swimming pools. Christian Goode, the head of Genting's Florida effort, claimed the three casino resorts could create 100,000 jobs.

In the end, Genting's blockbuster proposal failed to gain enough political support. So now Genting has returned with a plan to team up with a racetrack to build a generic, slots-only joint in Miami.

Gone is the talk about a casino resort designed to attract tourists and jobs.

Genting's turnabout underscores how casinos have little to do with jobs, tourism or economic development. This is all about money. The rest is just spin.

In fact, the slots are so lucrative casinos often agree to pay a tax as high as 50 percent or more on gambling revenues, provided they are guaranteed a monopoly in a market. Lawmakers often go along with the gambling plans – despite the well-documented social and economic costs – because casinos generate out-sized revenue without raising taxes. Of course, lawmakers are also influenced by the buckets of campaign contributions, lobbyists and PR firms that swarm state capitals.

The recent approval of casinos in New York provides a window into how Genting and other gambling interests influenced public policy. As a candidate for governor, Andrew Cuomo never mentioned casinos. But just eight months after taking office, the cornerstone of Cuomo's economic development agenda became casinos.

Soon after Cuomo endorsed legalizing casinos, Genting provided more than $2 million to a private lobbying group the governor established to help push his legislative agenda. At a fundraiser in October 2011, three Genting executives, including Goode, pitched Cuomo on a plan to build a $4 billion convention center next to the Aqueduct Racetrack in Queens, where Genting operates a sprawling electronic gambling facility.

Months later, in January 2012, Cuomo announced the convention center deal. The deal fell apart six months later reportedly because Cuomo could not guarantee Genting exclusive casino rights in New York City.

Undeterred, Cuomo and legislative leaders struck a deal in June 2013 to allow up to seven casinos across the state, including the first four located upstate where Genting also owns a stake in a racetrack. During the final two months of the legislative session, The New York Times reported, there were more gambling industry lobbyists in Albany than there were legislators.

Voters approved the casino measure in November, capping a decades-long effort by gambling interests to legalize commercial casinos in New York. Throughout the process, money drove policy: Since 2005, gambling interests spent more than $59 million on lobbying and campaign contributions, according Common Cause. That sounds like a lot, but it equals about one month of revenues at Genting's casino in Queens.

Now Genting and other gambling interests are betting that money and influence will get Florida to fall for casinos.

This article originally appeared here.

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