Florida will lose with gambling

Paul Davies, Tallahassee Democrat, 2/28/2014

After all, studies show that where casinos locate there is an increase in crime, bankruptcy, suicide and divorce. One study by economist Earl Grinols found that every $1 a casino brings in creates $3 in social and economic costs. Casinos do not generate much new spending but instead divert it from existing businesses. Even more problematic, studies show that anywhere from 30 percent to 60 percent of casino customers are repeat and problem gamblers. In particular, today's slot machines are sophisticated computers that are designed to addict gamblers.

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Subjects: Gambling, Casinos, Slot Machines

More by: Paul Davies

State Sen. Garrett Richter's sweeping gambling plan for Florida is long on expansion and short on reform.

Give Richter, R-Naples, credit for understanding that Florida's current gambling policy is a hodgepodge of plans slapped together over the years to fit the various desires of different gambling interests. But his three bills – including one 453-page bureaucratic behemoth – are mainly about legalizing two Las Vegas-style casinos in South Florida.

The rest is a smokescreen. The biggest reform is laughable: dog tracks will have to report injuries to greyhounds.

To be fair, the bill would create a five-member Gaming Control Board appointed by the governor. It remains to be seen if the Gaming Board would be about regulating or rubber-stamping the gambling industry.

In Pennsylvania, the gaming control board was quickly packed with cronies who awarded casino licenses to a bunch of politically connected applicants. One winning applicant was a major donor to a state senator and a convicted felon who later was indicted, charged with lying about his mob ties. The chairman of the gaming board was the governor's college buddy, who eventually left the board and resumed running a large Philadelphia law firm that represents some of the casino operators.

In Massachusetts, the gaming commission has yet to issue a casino license and is already ensnared in scandal regarding lavish travel expenses for luxury hotels, expensive flights and meals and top-rated restaurants around the world.

To be sure, creating an independent, regulatory framework to oversee all the gambling options already available in Florida is a good idea. But the state should focus on implementing the regulatory structure before enabling a major expansion of gambling. Pushing casinos and reforms at the same time – as Richter's unwieldy bills show – is akin to trying to change the tires on a moving race car at the Daytona 500.

This gets to the larger question: Why is Florida even considering more gambling? Residents are not clamoring for casinos. In fact, Florida voters have rejected efforts to legalize casinos in 1978, 1986 and 1994. A plan to bring three casino resorts to South Florida died just two years ago.

Lawmakers are merely responding to the gambling industry's ferocious lobbying and outsized campaign contributions. This is a public policy issue being driven by special interests. The impact of more gambling on the public is an afterthought.

In fact, only after casinos are legalized does Richter's bill call for a constitutional amendment to give voters a say in any future gambling expansion. Talk about closing the proverbial door after the race horses, greyhounds, slot machines and poker players are out of the barn.

The big casino operators driving this bill – Genting and Las Vegas Sands – would likely welcome a constitutional amendment after they get their casino licenses. Such a provision would make it harder for competitors to come into Florida.

If lawmakers really wanted the public's input, they would pass the amendment before moving forward with more gambling. Even better, if the lawmakers really cared about the public interest they would tell the Malaysian-based Genting and Las Vegas-based Sands to go away.

After all, studies show that where casinos locate there is an increase in crime, bankruptcy, suicide and divorce. One study by economist Earl Grinols found that every $1 a casino brings in creates $3 in social and economic costs.

Casinos do not generate much new spending but instead divert it from existing businesses. Even more problematic, studies show that anywhere from 30 percent to 60 percent of casino customers are repeat and problem gamblers. In particular, today's slot machines are sophisticated computers that are designed to addict gamblers.

Does the state really want to fund the government by preying on more gamblers?

Richter's bill overlooks one other major detail. Allowing commercial casinos could nullify the state's compact with the Seminole Tribe, which gives the state $230 million a year from slot machines and card games at its casinos.

Sen. Richter doesn't know if the proposed additional gambling would offset the potential loss of revenue from the tribes. In other words, Florida could end up with more gambling but even less money for state coffers.

Talk about a bad bet.

This article originally appeared here.

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