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Legislative Preview: Expanded Gambling

It’s mid-afternoon on a Monday, at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel and Casino in Tampa. People are gathered around the slot machines and card tables. At an hour’s drive from Disney World -- this is the closest casino to Orlando. And Orlando is where gambling opponents are mustering their forces against any expansion of gambling in the state.

“This is an industry that makes its money persuading people to make bets. And that’s what they’re doing with us,” John Sowinski said.

Sowinski is the head of No Casinos, a group that’s been fighting the expansion of gambling in Florida for over three decades.

“They’re asking us to bet the future of Florida that this would be a good thing and not a bad thing for our state,” says Sowinski.

The gambling industry wants to put “integrated resorts” in South Florida— with hotels, convention spaces, shops, restaurants, and casinos. Lawmakers are expected to take up the issue during this year's legislative session.

To try and gauge the potential effect of these casinos, the state Legislature commissioned a study from Spectrum Gaming Group.

Spectrum wrote a 700 page report, which Rep. Matt Gaetz described last October as a Rorschach test:

“…where everyone can stare at the inkblot and see what they want to see,” Gaetz said. 

Brewster Bevis, a lobbyist for the pro-casino Associated Industries Florida, says integrated resorts will boost the economy.

“These aren’t going to be the worst thing in the world. These aren’t going to be the end of Florida as we know it,” says Bevis.

Associated Industries sponsored a website called Best for Florida, which promotes the idea.

“Florida isn’t going to simply break off and sink into the ocean if we put one of these integrated resorts down in Southeast Florida,” Bevis says.

Sowinski disagrees:

“This would be a disaster for our economy.”

No Casinos even launched a parody website, called Less for Florida. Sowinski says the gambling industry’s promise of more jobs is an empty one.

“Because a job in a casino comes at a job at the expense of another business that’s already part of our economy,” says Sowinski.

Siding with No Casinos is Disney.

A Disney spokesperson declined to be interviewed, but sent over this statement:

“The massive expansion of gambling that would come from legalizing mega-casinos would be a bad bet for Florida’s taxpayers, tourism brand and existing businesses.”

But Michael Soll, a gambling and hospitality industry consultant, says those fears of ruining the Florida family-friendly brand are overstated.

“I don’t have any clients that aspire to develop resorts that compete with Disney, or even in the immediate neighborhood,” says Soll.

The Central Florida Hotel and Lodging Association agrees with the Disney stance on gambling. The association’s president, Richard Maladecki, says the state’s tourism brand power is strong enough already, without casinos.

“Florida is already known worldwide. Orlando is already known worldwide. Why do we need to bring in the expansion of gambling?” says Maladecki.

Complicating the potential gambling legislation is the state’s current compact with the Seminole Tribe.

The compact gives the Seminoles rights to slot machines and house banked card games like Black Jack outside of Miami-Dade and Broward counties.

In return, the state gets at least $1 billion over 5 years.

The compact is up for renewal in 2015, but new legislation to expand gambling could throw the agreement into jeopardy.

“We signed an agreement,” says Jacob Stuart of the Orlando Chamber of Commerce. He is opposed to the expansion of gambling, but thinks the state should uphold its end of the bargain with the Seminole tribe.

“And we ought to honor the agreement. And if we don’t, let me just say, that Florida is going to be on the hook, a substantial hook to compensate those that are injured by changing this agreement,” says Stuart.

Back at the Seminole Hard Rock in Tampa, there’s an announcement going off for a patron to pick up his $2,000 prize--no one claims it.

And if Central Florida-based interests have their way, the ticket for expanded gambling would go unclaimed as well.