Miami Herald | EDITORIAL

Florida’s gambling genie


OUR OPINION: New study points to haphazard patchwork of growing gambling options in Florida

With the Florida Lottery among the biggest in the nation, casino-like games at pari-mutuels and jai alai throughout the Sunshine State, casinos run by the Seminole and Miccosukee tribes and those gambling cruises to nowhere and back, the thought that a destination casino resort will destroy Florida’s family tourism image seems almost quaint.

Florida already is a “major gambling state, with a wide array of options.” So declares a new gambling study conducted for the state.

That’s why a comprehensive approach is long overdue to focus on what type of gambling makes sense for Florida and to put an end (or at least limit) the games that continue to prey on the elderly and working poor.

“Intentionally or not, the policies established by lawmakers — or the lack thereof — play a critical role in the evolution and expansion of gaming,” notes a draft report by Spectrum Gaming Group, a New Jersey company hired by the state to study current gaming laws and look at the long-term effects of gambling in Florida. “The industry rarely shrinks, and quite often, expands . . . ”

This past legislative session lawmakers jumped on outlawing Internet cafes and gambling arcades, the so-called video maquinitas often played by retirees at strip shopping malls for a chance at a “gift card.” The swift action came after former Lt. Gov. Jennifer Carroll resigned after her connections to Allied Veterans of the World, a Florida nonprofit that operated a chain of Internet sweepstakes cafes that law enforcement deemed a gambling racket, were disclosed.

No doubt that Florida’s “family tourism” reputation, particularly generated by Disney World and other amusement parks in the Orlando area, bring in billions of dollars to the state. But less than an hour’s drive away from the Magic Kingdom stands the Seminole Hard Rock casino off Interstate 4 in the Tampa area. It, too, rakes in lots of bucks but little of that money goes to the state because Indian tribes are independent of state policy. The Seminoles are paying Florida as part of that tribe’s gambling compact, which allowed blackjack and other types of table games that pari-mutuels are not allowed to offer. But the compact ends soon.

Besides, even with the Indian casinos having the upper hand, pari-mutuels and jai alai frontons have been moving aggressively to exploit loopholes in state law to offer more games, and state regulators rarely say No. Just last year, regulators allowed slot machine operators in Miami-Dade and Broward counties to run electronic games that mimic live roulette and craps.

Clearly, Florida needs a long range plan to wrestle control over the piecemeal mess that has been created. A destination resort in downtown Miami (at the site of the former Herald building now owned by casino resorts giant Genting) may not be the solution, but it’s still too early to rule it out. Spectrum’s second report, due in October, will dive into the economic impact of gambling on communities, and so far the jobs numbers aren’t very notable.

“Based on our research and experience in Florida and elsewhere, gaming will evolve in Florida whether or not the Florida Legislature develops a plan and puts that plan into action,’’ Spectrum’s draft report concludes. “Absent any plan, however, that evolution would be haphazard and would be far less likely to address or advance any public-policy goals.”

The Legislature can’t keep putting off the inevitable. The gambling genie left the bottle long ago.

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