In My Opinion

Fred Grimm: Big bucks flowed in Tallahassee this year, but gambling supporters got nothing in return

 

fgrimm@MiamiHerald.com

They hired 100 powerboy lobbyists. They poured gobs of money into the campaign accounts of the governor and our legislators. They enriched the state political parties.

They got nothing. They bet all that money on a favorable comprehensive overhaul of Florida’s madcap gambling statutes. They rolled snake eyes.

They wanted legislation to establish destination casinos, or to lower tax rates for racinos, or to allow slot machines in parimutuels beyond South Florida, or to expand the gambling monopolies enjoyed by Indian casinos, or to “de-couple” dog racing from the greyhound racinos, or to allow revival of the strip mall casinos. And to get what they wanted, gaming enterprises invested prodigious amounts of money in the 2014 legislative session.

The Herald’s Mary Ellen Klas reported that in the first quarter of this year alone, the Republican Party of Florida took in $832,000 from gaming outfits. The Democrats received $347,000.

The Florida subsidiaries of Malaysian gaming giant Genting, desperate to build a destination casino on Biscayne Bay, gave $883,000 to the political parties and sent a number of fat checks to political committees controlled by individual legislators.

Billionaire gambling magnate Sheldon Adelson, who runs the Las Vegas Sands (another wanna-be destination casino player in South Florida), has donated some $500,000 to committees supporting Gov. Rick Scott since 2010.

The Seminole Tribe, which would like to keep Genting, the Sands and other gaming conglomerates away from Florida, gave $150,000 to both the the Republicans and Democratic parties and $500,000 to Gov. Scott’s political action committee.

Owners of the Palm Beach Kennel Club, desperate to augment its moribund dog racing operation with slot machines, handed out checks totaling $159,000 to political parties and political action committees.

More money poured into Tallahassee from former operators of now-outlawed senior citizen arcades and Internet cafes, from racinos, from would-be racinos. Gambling operations have given out at least $3.4 million to Florida lawmakers since 2012

Meanwhile, anti-casino forces like the Walt Disney Co., with 34 lobbyists on the payroll, and the Florida Chamber of Commerce have been fighting to tamp down gambling. Bloomberg News reported that Disney handed out $400,000 worth of park passes and other entertainment goodies to legislators last year.

All those lobbyists and that money bought zilch. State legislators demonstrated that they knew the unseemly secret of modern politics — procrastination pays. Prolong a decision for months, for years, and the competing interests just keep contributing. And their friends and benefactors in the lobbying industry (future employer of so many present-day legislators) keep making money.

At the national level, this is why Congress debates a banking reform bill for years. Or takes forever to hammer out a farm bill. It keeps the money coming. Gridlock, often confused with having something to do with philosophical differences, is actually a profitable business plan. At the state level, this is why the legislature, even after paying a gaming consultant $388,845 in 2013 to map out the absurdities in Florida’s gambling policies, adjourned last week without doing a thing to fix the mess. That would be like murdering the solid-gold goose.

Because competing interests will keep paying — paying to push their own selfish interest, paying to oppose their rivals’ interests. “Anytime gaming gets mentioned,” Senate President Don Gaetz told reporters last month, “it’s like red meat in the middle of the table with a bunch of carnivores around because of all the interests groups that have a stake in the process.”

The 2014 legislature failed to address even a bill dear to Gaetz, requiring greyhound track operators to report injuries to racing dogs. Nor did they take up a bill to relax the number of races staged by dog track owners, despite ever dwindling attendance numbers. No legislation passed either house that would allow destination casinos. Nor did the legislature revisit strip mall casinos (also known as senior citizen arcades or Internet cafes or, in Miami-Dade County, maquintas), which were outlawed last year but seem to be making a comeback, with slightly altered software. (Last month, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, raided 26 arcades in north and central Florida.)

Racinos got no tax relief. Race tracks and jai-alai frontons outside Broward and Miami-Dade didn’t get slot machines. So they’ve got to keep on writing checks.

There was talk that Gov. Scott, who has been negotiating a new gambling compact with the Seminole Tribe, would call a special session to deal with the pact and other festering gaming issues.

Reportedly, the governor and the Seminoles have agreed on a compact that would give the tribe the exclusive right to stage craps and roulette and maybe add a ninth tribal casino near Fort Pierce.

If legislators approve the new Seminole compact, it would supposedly mean $500 million a year to the state. But if they do nothing, all the competing players wanting a chunk of the Florida’s casino business will keeping on filling our legislators' campaign coffers. Want to bet on the outcome?

Read more Fred Grimm stories from the Miami Herald

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