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2013 Legislative Session
TALLAHASSEE (FBW) – Lessons learned from Florida’s history of incremental escalation of gambling should instruct the Legislature as it considers future gambling policy, a leading opponent said Jan. 22 during a meeting of the Senate Gaming Committee.
“We believe this history argues for bright lines in our state law and perhaps our constitution with regard to what kinds of gambling are legal and illegal in this state,” said John Sowinski, president of No Casinos, a group originally founded in the 1970’s by then-Gov. Reubin Askew to oppose casinos in Florida.
In a 10-minute presentation, Sowinski traced the history of gambling expansion in Florida noting how each new form of gambling resulted in the next, including pari-mutuels, the Florida Lottery, Indian gambling, “racinos” in South Florida, and sweepstakes Internet cafes.
Presenting what he said are three lessons learned from Florida’s history of gambling, Sowinski said the lessons should inform today’s legislators as they consider future gambling policy.
“Gambling is the only human endeavor that I know of that the solution to having too much of it seems to be exponentially having more of it,” he said of the first lesson.
“Without exception … when voters or legislators have approved a very limited form of gambling it has exploded well beyond what was originally intended,” Sowinski said of the second lesson.
Of the third lesson, he said, “Without bright-line tests there’s enough financial incentive, enough creativity to manipulate loopholes and create entirely new categories of gambling.”
Sowinski further urged the committee to “weigh all the social, economic, law enforcement and regulatory costs of casino gambling” and to check the “track record of revenue promises” gambling proponents have made in the past, but failed to deliver.
“There’s a saying in Las Vegas: ‘What happens here, stays here.’ And that’s quite alright with us,” said Richard Turner, vice president and general counsel of the association, expressing concern that more gambling in Florida will impact his members.
Turner also cited the impact on restaurants and other businesses in Atlantic City when casinos were opened in the late 1970’s, asserting 40 percent of restaurants closed and a third of other businesses were shuttered.
He commended the committee’s desire to evaluate the state of gambling in Florida, while urging members to reject any expansion.
Sen. Gwen Margolis, D-Miami, said she was worried about the idea of so-called destination resorts casinos.
“I’m very, very concerned, because this destination place is going to be right smack in the middle of my district,” she said. “And I don’t want to see my district become Atlantic City.”
Margolis told her colleagues: “Miami is a great international destination now without gambling. … What more can I say? I don’t need to have a casino there.”
The committee also received testimony from three representatives of the pari-mutuels industry in the state.
“Does the state just want tax revenues out of the industry? Or does it also want capital investment and jobs as part of that overall equation?” asked Donn Mitchell, chief administrative officer of Isle of Capri Casinos, Inc.
Committee Chairman Garrett Richter, R-Naples, said the committee plans to hear next month from representatives of companies that hope to start resort casinos in Florida. He indicated the panel will have at least one other pre-session meeting, with likely field hearings this summer in Orlando and Miami to seek public comments.
Richter said he doesn’t expect the committee to meet during the legislative session that begins in March. He is collaborating with leaders of the Florida House of Representatives to hire a consultant to conduct an independent study of the state of gambling in Florida.
Concerning the prospective consultants, Sen. Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, asked Richter, “Are we requesting what other studies they have done, what clients they have been involved with to make sure that we understand exactly what the product is we’re getting?”
“That’s a very good question,” Richter replied. “No, I can’t. But, yes, I will.”
Sowinski told the Witness after the meeting he was encouraged by concerns expressed by some of the senators.
He said it is “incumbent on folks” opposed to casinos to attend the prospective field hearings “because the [gambling] industry will pay people to pack those rooms and say things in support of it.”
Concerning the independent study, Sowinski said, “I think we’ll have to watch that very closely” to be certain it is not influenced by the gambling industry.
“We’re more optimistic certainly than we have been over the last couple of years that we can get a fair shake at this,” he added.
“What we want and what we think is going to happen is to have both the costs and benefits weighed,” Sowinski said. “And the costs of this to our society are tremendous. Taxpayers end up subsidizing the cost of addiction, of society dependence, of law enforcement costs, of adjudication of criminals, [and] everything that results from casino gambling.”
If all the facts are known it’s a “no-brainer that we ought not have more gambling in Florida. In fact, we ought to have less of it,” he said.
Gambling industry proponents’ claims during the meeting were “amazing,” Bunkley told the Witness.
“To hear them tell it, the benefits of gambling to Floridians rivals getting the news that we’ve found a cure for cancer,” he said, adding the disease is actually an “apt description for gambling activity that will quickly spread across Florida if it is not kept in check now.
“And though it is a very long shot, remission of gambling in Florida would be a very good thing,” he said.
Bunkley urged Florida Baptists to “educate themselves on this important issue, [and] then contact their local state senators and house members voicing opposition to any further expansion.”
With reporting by News Service of Florida
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