President Sowinski Speaks Out

Casino interests have little to offer a state focused on family tourism
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December 4, 2011 12:10

Today throughout Florida, parents are helping their kids with homework. High school students are preparing for the SAT and applying to colleges. Citizens are applying for jobs that they hope and pray they will get.

We owe these Floridians a strategy to build a robust and diverse economy. In doing so, we could learn from the words of FedEx founder and CEO Fred Smith, who says, “The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.”

Unfortunately, some politicians in Tallahassee have set their sights lower — much lower, so the main thing they will be discussing during the upcoming legislative session in Tallahassee is not luring new jobs in aerospace, computer simulation, life sciences, knowledge-based industries or manufacturing. Instead, the main thing they’ll be talking about is high-stakes casino gambling.

The Florida Legislature is considering a bill that provides for a historic expansion of gambling in Florida. In fact, a Malaysian gambling conglomerate has hired 23 lobbyists to push their idea of building the biggest casino in the history of the world here in Florida. It would be almost twice the size of what is today the world’s largest casino, and would be as big as the casinos in the Mirage, the Wynn, the Bellagio, the Venetian, the MGM Grand and Caesar’s Palace combined. And the bill would allow up to three such “destination casinos” to be built (until the Legislature adds more).

The problem is that gambling is not real economic development. There is no product or service. It is merely an efficient re-distributor of money. It is an industry that is predatory in every way. When casinos go into a developed tourism economy, they cannibalize existing jobs and businesses. That’s because casinos give away as loss leaders things that are otherwise sold for a profit by local businesses. These “comps” of cheap or free hotel rooms and meals are designed to keep people in the casino. In fact, when casinos opened in Atlantic City, 40 percent of the restaurants and a third of the retail establishments went out of business.

Those who believe casinos would be good for our economy need to take a closer look at Nevada. Nevada leads America in unemployment, with a jobless rate that is 30 percent higher than Florida’s. It leads America in foreclosures, with a foreclosure rate nearly 400 percent that of Florida’s. It leads America in personal bankruptcy. Nevada’s addiction to gambling also takes its toll in terms of social costs. It is a leader in per-capita spending for law enforcement and has the highest divorce rate in America.

Casino gambling has also proven to be a lousy springboard into economic diversification, as evidenced by the fact that no Fortune 500 companies outside of the casino industry are headquartered in Nevada.

This track record is why Florida’s leading business organizations — the Florida Chamber of Commerce, the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association, the Florida Attractions Association and the Florida Retail Federation — all oppose this expansion of gambling.

Not only would the proposed mega-casinos cannibalize existing jobs and businesses, they also rack up social costs borne by taxpayers: Counseling and treatment for compulsive gamblers and public support for the families they leave destitute, the cost of regulation, lost productivity, law enforcement, crime, insurance claims — the list goes on and on. According to the Florida Council on Compulsive Gambling, 35 percent of addicted Florida gamblers who call their hotline admit to committing crimes in order to support their addiction or pay gambling debts. Gambling promoters almost never acknowledge these impacts, much less try to account for their costs.

Anyone concerned about honesty and integrity in government should also be leery about legalizing full-scale casino gambling in our state. In fact, the last time there were proposals to build big-time casinos in Florida, one casino company put the sitting speaker of the Florida House of Representatives on its payroll. He went to federal prison, for, among other things, failing to pay taxes on the $250,000 he was paid by the casino company.

Unlike other states that have gone the big-time gambling route, we in Florida have much more to lose. Our family-friendly brand has for generations made Florida a global leader in tourism. Las Vegas tried to promote itself as a family destination in the 1990s. They failed, and have opted for the more apropos “what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas” moniker.

The parents helping their kids with homework and the high school students applying to colleges tonight want and deserve a bright future. They want Florida to aim for the top, not race to the bottom. They aren’t interested in jobs with titles like card dealer or pit boss. Their aspirations are higher. Ours for Florida should be too.

Sowinski, of Orlando, is president of

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