By No Casinos’ President John Sowinski
When the Florida Legislature nears the end of session, we begin to see the backroom doors close and the sausage making commence.
The pressure to make immediate deals often supersedes thoughtful deliberation about long-term consequences. And that is when bad outcomes occur.
Such is the situation with negotiations over gambling legislation between the House and Senate.
Early in the session, both bodies put forward gambling bills that went in entirely different directions.
The House version would have held the line on gambling expansion on and off tribal property, blocking new casinos and honoring the intent of a gambling compact signed between the state and Seminole Tribe in 2010. That deal confined any spread of gambling to tribal property in exchange for billions of dollars in guaranteed payments from the Seminole Tribe to the state.
The Senate version would shred the original Seminole agreement, allowing for the biggest expansion of gambling in Florida’s history. Two mega-casinos would go up in Miami-Dade and Broward Counties, and dog tracks, horse tracks and jai alai frontons from the Panhandle to the Keys would morph into casinos.
The differences between the bills caused the House and Senate to enter into a conference committee to hammer out the differences.Unfortunately, that has translated into plans to expand gambling as the horse-trading between chambers began. A new House compromise would allow for an expansion of gambling on tribal property and one new casino in Miami.
That deal should inflame more than the business and political leaders of Miami who strenuously object to the idea. It should be of concern to everyone because once a new casino hits Miami, it’s only a matter of time before pressure builds to put that second one in Broward. And from there the march north begins.
In reality, compromise just gets us the Senate bill in slow motion.
Legislators have portrayed this effort as a final and comprehensive solution. That is fanciful thinking at best.
To the gambling industry, compromises now simply will whet its appetite for more compromises down the road. Other than a consistent and steadfast no, there will be a steady, methodical push for more and more gambling.
This is why No Casinos supports the Voters in Charge initiative, which once again would require gambling expansion decisions be put to a statewide vote. The Florida Supreme Court has approved the referendum language and signatures are being gathered to put the measure before voters in 2018.
If the amendment passes, the backroom deals will end. Casino operators will have to take their case for expansion to the residents of Florida, where it will be debated in a public forum.
We strongly encourage legislators to stop making last-minute expansion deals in Tallahassee. The original House bill accomplished that goal and should be the bottom line until voters decide otherwise.
This is how Armando Codina, one of Miami’s most prominent business leaders, described the compromise to put a new casino in his city to the Miami Herald. “They are voting for something without any understanding of the impact. … It’s a crime being perpetrated on the City of Miami.”
Such are the pitfalls of legislative sausage making in the final days of the session. For many other issues there is virtue in seeking compromise, knowing that problems from an imperfect deal can be ironed out in future legislative sessions. But when it comes to gambling policy, legislators face a different problem. Allowing even some gambling expansion inevitably leads to exponentially more gambling than anticipated. This “gambling creep” comes about either as a direct function of federal law related to tribal gambling rights, or an indirect function of the gambling industry’s legendary influence and insatiable appetite for more.
In this case no deal is better than a bad deal. No deal keeps Florida’s gambling footprint intact, whereas a bad deal brings the increases in crime and social costs that accompany gambling, and puts Florida’s multibillion-dollar family-friendly tourism brand at risk.
In the 1970s, 1980s, 1990s and 2000s, gambling expansion decisions were put to voters by statewide referendum. People didn’t wake up one morning to suddenly discover a major casino was headed their way as the result of a back-room compromise by politicians in Tallahassee.
It’s only since politicians began co-opting the authority of voters that we have seen stability fall into chaos, and gambling legislation fall under the spell of special interests and lobbyists.
A return to putting voters in charge of casino gambling decisions very much is in order.
John Sowinski is president of No Casinos.