Florida casinos: Fix is in?



Imagine if Florida were like Atlantic City. If that vision has you reeling, here’s the jaw dropper: A casino lobbyist in Florida recently cited Atlantic City and Las Vegas as examples where “they do it right.”

When politicians encounter a particularly thorny issue, they often order up a study. Even if their minds are already made up, a report — always objective and independent, of course — provides them with the cover to “do the right thing.” That’s exactly what the Florida Legislature, under pressure for years from mega-casino interests, did about expanding gambling.

Unfortunately Florida legislators turned to Atlantic City for advice, when they really need to look there for an example of what not to do.

The city, home for 35 years to Vegas-style casinos, is also home to Spectrum Gaming Group, a consulting firm steeped in work for virtually every type of gambling interest across America and in Florida. In fact, Spectrum recently worked for the Genting company as part of the Malaysian casino giant’s failed lobbying efforts to build the biggest casino in the world in downtown Miami.

Now it is the Legislature’s most important “independent” adviser on legislation affecting Genting and scores of their other clients.

The Florida Legislature is paying Spectrum Gaming Group $400,000 in tax money to help lawmakers decide if we need more gaming in Florida. Even the addictions expert for their study routinely does research sponsored by the casino industry. More than $9 million has been contributed from casinos over the years to his research institute.

On what planet does none of this represent a conflict of interest?

Spectrum’s report is due to land on desks in Tallahassee this week. So given who is writing it, is the fix in?

Rosy predictions about casinos are stock in trade for Spectrum. That’s why national observers of gambling issues call the firm “part of the roll-out team for a casino expansion.” The problem for the casino industry is that the social costs of crime, corruption and human misery associated with casino gambling means they have to make big promises about jobs and tax revenues to demonstrate anything resembling public benefits. That’s what Spectrum Gaming routinely provides for the casinos. One need look no further than its hometown of Atlantic City for proof.

Casino revenues in Atlantic City casinos continue their seven-year downward spiral. Profit has been cut in half over the past year alone. Free food and bar privileges are no longer enough to draw gamblers, so casinos have turned to an industry that exploits women. Even Donald Trump added a strip club inside his Atlantic City casino.

By any empirical measure, Atlantic City is worse off because of casino gambling: Consider these statistics recently published in USA Today:

• Before casinos, Atlantic City’s population was 47,859. Today, the number of residents has dwindled to 39,558.

• In 1970, the percentage of residents living below the poverty line was 22.5 percent. Today, it’s a staggering 29.3.

• Unemployment is virtually unchanged. In 1977, the rate was 18.1 percent. In 2012, it was 17 percent, nearly twice as high as the statewide average.

• Violent crime touches 19.2 people per 1,000 residents, when the state average is just 3.1.

In a city littered with broken promises, Spectrum has offered its hometown the same rosy predictions and unwarranted optimism we can expect to see in the report the firm presents to Florida’s Legislature.

In 2009 Spectrum hailed the Revel Casino as a step in the right direction, “just the tonic that Atlantic City needs,” a destination casino resort geared toward high-end bettors.

Yet within a year of opening, Revel Casino declared bankruptcy, despite a $261 million long-term tax break from New Jersey. That’s a quarter-billion-dollar taxpayer bailout for a bankrupt enterprise sold to locals as a jobs-and tax-revenue creator.

So when gambling interests come armed with an “independent” government study packed with economic data suggesting that casinos would be good for Florida, consider the source of those numbers. Then ask yourself: Is Florida’s future brighter if we follow Atlantic City’s lead? Or should we, instead, learn from its example?

John Sowinski is president of NoCasinos.org.

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