Op-Ed

Casinos push for expansion but, for the public, all bets are off

TNS

West Broward County somehow is still growing, which means more strip malls, which means another McDonald’s on every new outparcel. Recently, while seeing yet another one going up, I realized:

Hey, we have enough McDonald’s restaurants. I can already get to one easily wherever I am.

A similar thought popped into my head as I was mulling the consequences of a long-awaited Florida Supreme Court decision, one that declared that it’s not enough to pass a county referendum to add slots: The state Legislature also must be involved. The decision, regarding the tiny town of Gretna in northwest Florida, likely also stopped seven other Florida counties from adding slots.

So gamblers in the conservative northern part of Florida will have continue to frequent the Seminole Hard Rock in Tampa. In South Florida, a voter-approved state amendment, followed by county referendums, gave us slots at racetracks, in addition to Native American casinos.

As I survey the scene nationwide, I think it’s fair to ask the question: Do we have enough casinos already? And, a related question: Do we have enough gambling already?

Gambling operators say the market must expand to maintain profitability — and to create more taxable revenue to feed state coffers. But what about the public? When is the last time you’ve heard a group of everyday fans of slots, poker, or table games get together to demand expansion?

“Other than people who hold parimutuel permits, there’s no clamoring from people in Florida for gambling,” says John Sowinski, president of No Casinos, Inc. Based on his organization’s surveys, he puts the number of Floridians who say they want more gambling opportunities at about 20 percent. But every year, there is a push. “That’s what happened when an industry’s influence in the Legislature greatly exceeds its economic importance.”

No Casinos, Inc., based in Orlando, doesn’t reveal who funds it. But it doesn’t disagree when people point to Disney, with its desire to protect its (non-gaming) convention business, as the organization’s primary funding source.

“Most people live near a casino,” Sowinski says. “So casinos are no longer a draw to attract tourists.” He cites a Florida survey by Spectrum Gaming that concluded that even if destination casinos were built, 95 percent of the revenue would be derived from locals.

As former state Sen. Gwen Margolis noted during the debate a few years ago regarding Genting and Miami development: “Not a single constituent has called saying they want a casino.”

Sowinski wants to take the decision-making out of the Legislature’s hands. He is working to have a ballot initiative in 2018 that says that for a form of casino gambling expansion to be legal in the state, it must be approved by the voters by constitutional initiative.

Back in 2010, when the Seminole Tribe of Florida and the state agreed to a compact, No Casinos looked at the deal as a firewall, a way to thwart future gambling expansion. The logic was that any new casinos could void the Seminoles’ payments to the state.

“We have some things in common, and their exclusivity keeps gambling from exploding everywhere,” Sowinski says. “Where we part company is they would like more games.

“But in the ‘promises made, promises kept’ department, the tribe wins all day long versus the parimutuels.”

The question of how much is enough is something that should be asked nationally, not just in Florida. Take the mid-Atlantic. New York, Maryland, Delaware, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Pennsylvania all are in some stage of expansion after New Jersey broke the ice four decades ago. Those states are fighting each other for market share — to the point that just about everyone in those states can now get to a casino via car or train relatively easily, no airfare necessary.

I understand that each casino expansion proposal is unique and that many may be valid. But the casino industry shouldn’t automatically assume that every court ruling that halts gambling growth is a bad thing. One of the selling points of casinos is that a visit there is special: You’re greeted like a star, no matter your worth, and you have the hope that something wonderful could happen each time you walk through the doors.

It’s not like, say, going to a McDonald’s.

Nick Sortal, southfloridagambling.com, writes a gambling column for The Miami Herald’s Weekend section.

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