Guest Column: Don’t let Florida fall victim to gambling’s toxicity

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BY JOHN SOWINSKI
Special to The Tampa Tribune
Published: March 3, 2015

For decades, casino lobbyists have tried to turn Florida into Las Vegas. But they have been turned back time and again by voters, legislators, governors and business groups that understand the toxic nature of gambling economics.

But gambling lobbyists are back again, this time pushing for the biggest expansion of gambling in Florida’s history. There is a reason why they are so desperate to move into Florida and why responsible legislators should once again turn them away.

The national gambling market is saturated. Most Americans now live close enough to a casino that they don’t have to travel to gamble, negating the industry’s ability to attract tourists. Major casinos across America have closed or are teetering. The operating unit of Caesars Entertainment, America’s largest casino company, has filed for bankruptcy. Moody’s Investors Service has downgraded the gambling industry outlook to negative.

Contrast that with Florida’s family friendly tourism industry, which is setting new visitor records every year. That foundation is leading our state’s economic rebound while we continue to diversify our economy.

When casino conglomerates look at Florida, they see almost 100 million tourists already coming here and 20 million residents. Theirs is a parasitic industry that seeks to exploit what we have built, not add to it.

Turning Florida into a casino destination makes about as much sense as a bank getting into the subprime mortgage business. Yet Rep. Dana Young of Tampa has introduced legislation that is a goody bag of giveaways for every gambling interest.

Lobbyists are trying to portray her proposal as an “overall contraction” or “net reduction” in gambling. It’s a clever sleight of hand. How can you legalize Vegas-style casinos and expand other forms of gambling and call it a reduction? Voters won’t buy it. Legislators shouldn’t, either.

Expect to hear recycled fables of economic growth and bountiful tax proceeds. We’ve heard it all before, from unfulfilled lottery promises to the never-seen $500 million we were promised for education if we legalized slots in South Florida.

Gambling revenues are unreliable and depend on displacing other sources of revenue. They also come with costs that society and taxpayers must bear, including increased crime, addiction and dependence.

Atlantic City’s story offers a reality check. After casinos opened, 40 percent of the restaurants and a third of the retail stores went out of business. Last year four Atlantic City casinos closed, and a fifth is seeking a government bailout. The city is in an economic depression. More than 8,000 jobs have been lost. Property values have plunged, resulting in hefty tax increases on residents. The city’s debt is rated junk. Its spiral toward bankruptcy forced Gov. Chris Christie to appoint an emergency manager. The American Gaming Association recently dismissed all this as “the closings of a couple of Atlantic City, N.J., properties.” Really?

Most confounding is the industry’s proposed solution: More gambling (naturally), including new casinos in North Jersey to subsidize Atlantic City casinos, and sports betting.

Gambling is the only human endeavor for which the solution to having too much is to create even more.

Consider Florida parimutuels. Dog tracks and frontons would have gone the way of the Dodo in the 1990s if the free market had its way. But unlike other obsolete businesses, gambling enterprises lobbied for and got more gambling and lower taxes. Sound familiar?

That’s exactly what Rep. Young’s bill does once again, giving tax breaks to parimutuels and allowing some of them to expand their gambling operations, as if a seasonal dog racing license issued in the 1950s is a birthright to become a casino.

Five years ago a gambling compact that gave the Seminole Tribe blackjack was sold as a firewall to stop gambling expansion. That agreement expires this year, and gambling industry lobbyists want to use its renegotiation as an opening to once again try to turn us into Las Vegas. It would be the ultimate betrayal of Florida voters if what was sold as a safeguard against more gambling became the vehicle for unprecedented expansion.

Unlike a lot of states that have legalized casinos, Florida has a lot to lose. Our family friendly tourism brand is the envy of the world. Las Vegas attempted to emulate it by marketing itself to families and failed miserably. You can’t be both a gambling destination and a family destination.

Why would Florida trade what’s working here for what is failing around the country?

Gov. Rick Scott and the Legislature should reject efforts to expand gambling.

John Sowinski is the president of NoCasinos.org.

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