The Destination Resort legislation we filed in October has triggered a spirited statewide debate. We have observed with intrigue and at times disappointment as tired rhetoric and clever sound bytes attempt to bury the facts relevant to this topic. So here we seek to reiterate the facts and share our vision for Florida’s future.
First, we must recognize and admit that under the nose of an “anti-gaming” legislature, both Democrat and Republican, Florida has become the 4th largest gaming state in the nation over the last 10 years. More recently, it has grown in large part through statutory loopholes and clever lawyering. There seems to be no end in sight as to the expansion and lack of strategic direction to address it.
Second, this bill is not bringing anything new to this state. “Las Vegas” style casinos are already present in Miami-Dade, Broward, and Hillsborough counties. The concept of the Destination Resort simply reforms what we have by moving from the third-tier gaming that caters exclusively to a local residents, to one that attracts non-Floridian and international tourists. Make no mistake; we would like nothing more than to eliminate all gambling in our state. As native Floridians, it is not something we believe our state needs, but our current landscape was set in motion with the lottery, long before either of us was elected.
One argument against: Why not forget Destination Resorts and simply shut down the Internet cafes and let the pari-mutuel industry die a slow death? If it were that easy it would have been done years ago. This is a challenging issue to tackle and to attempt that type of reduction is not a political reality but simply the making of a political statement. The next best thing is to harness and re-direct the type of gaming that does and will exist. This bill will be the first proposal that creates a strategic vision for gaming in Florida. We have done it in Education, Health Care, Criminal Justice, and Economic Development. The time has come to address gambling.
Without legislative approval or direction, the last few years have witnessed a proliferation of gambling locations throughout Florida. We’ve seen “internet cafes,” which are basically unregulated and untaxed slot barns open up in strip malls and grow to over 2,000 locations. A recent court ruling seems to allow slot machines in any county in this state, and the Seminole Indian casinos, which were sold a monopoly on the cheap by the state through the Compact, continue expanding. We could have taken a different path. We chose not to under the premise that if we gave the Seminoles a monopoly on the Vegas style casinos, that gambling would cease to expand in this state. Again the public was misled.
It is time to be sincere and to lead. We strongly disagree that our proposal would constitute the largest expansion of gaming in the state’s history. There are many ways to define “expansion.” Is it one more dollar spent? Is it an expansion of games offered? Or is it simply additional locations to enter and place a bet. In all three of the scenarios, the lottery is the reigning champ of expansion. Arguably, an expansion of locations where one can gamble is the broadest definition. Thus, every time a supermarket or gas station opens, that is a new gambling location. That is where this bill desires to reduce gaming. We will address “internet cafes” and either shut them down or highly regulate them. In doing so, we will see either no or an over 75% reduction in the number of locations. Additionally, placing the lottery under the new gaming commission, could limit its expansion.
There are three other arguments that the “anti-gaming” organizers will use to attack this bill. First, that it will make us “the next Las Vegas or Atlantic City.” Second, that it will cannibalize existing businesses, and third that the social consequences out-weigh any benefit. All are intellectually dishonest. We could never be Vegas or Atlantic City. Vegas is a desert that but for casinos, nobody would visit. Atlantic City was a ghost town before casinos came. Now, casinos are the only attraction. South Florida already is an international destination, adding gaming to high-end resorts only enhances the mix of entertainment options. We are limiting the number of resorts and the new Gaming Commission, together with local governments, will have broad authority to determine how many resorts, their scale, and location.
With respect to cannibalization, arguing against competition is just silly. Quality businesses always survive. Disney will continue to thrive. And Florida, with its “decadent” nightclubs on South Beach, its strip clubs throughout the state, and yes, gambling, has never lost its family friendly image and never will. While it may be true that social ills follow gaming, given the nature of our current offerings, those ills already exist. Arguably, moving from the predatory gaming of local slot barns, Internet cafes, and the lottery toward Destination Resorts could help mitigate these hazards. No one has ever made the argument that more restaurants, bars, or liquor stores produce a greater number of alcoholics. Addiction is what it is and five-star hotels with a limited casino component are less likely to attract the low-income addict.
Lastly, we will have to address parity for the pari-mutuel industry (aka South Florida casinos). In large part we are here because this industry funded the campaign to put slots on the ballot. It opened the door for the Seminole Indian casinos and set us on a path that has created a patchwork quilt of laws difficult to navigate and harness. We will finally address where our state needs to be in years to come. If we fail to do so, we will find ourselves as the number one gaming state within five years and compromise Florida politically and economically. There will be no turning back.
Ellyn Setnor Bogdanoff
State Senate District 25
House of Representatives District 111