By THE PALM BEACH POST
Updated: 6:50 p.m. Friday, Jan. 6, 2012
First reports to the contrary, the revised “destination resort” casino bill from state Sen. Ellyn Bogdanoff, R-Fort Lauderdale, wouldn’t ban Internet cafes. So there goes what we potentially liked most about her new effort, one of the most controversial issues the Legislature will consider as it convenes this week. In fact, the Senate Regulated Industries Committee gets its first look at the new draft Monday.
Sen. Bogdanoff said Thursday in an interview that she doubts the state can ban the 1,000 or so Internet cafés, which have sprung up in strip malls to offer “sweepstakes” games that mimic slot machines. Instead, she said, the revised bill would make them pay taxes – “They pay nothing now” – and ban new ones.
That’s something, but not enough to make the whole casino package palatable. The overall effect still would be a major expansion of gambling in Florida.
Sen. Bogdanoff and Rep. Erik Fresen, R-Miami, envisioned a bill that would allow up to three Las Vegas-style casinos in South Florida and create a “gaming commission” to regulate all forms of gambling. That has morphed into a proposal that would allow any pari-mutuel, such as the Palm Beach Kennel Club, to add slot machines and become full-fledged casinos under one condition: “The voters need to have the last say,” Sen. Bogdanoff said.
Pari-mutuels and the “racinos” of Miami-Dade and Broward counties, which got slots after an earlier voter-approved gambling expansion, now pay 35 percent in taxes. Sen. Bogdanoff wants to lower that at least
to 18 percent once the first “destination resort” casino opens. Casinos would pay 10 percent.
It’s impossible to know how many big casinos might come to Florida. It’s impossible to know how many parimutuels and racinos would expand to what extent. So it is impossible for state economists to project with confidence what the revised gambling law would bring in. At first blush, it looks as if betting establishments will get to keep a lot more of their winnings. That would be a loss on top of the $250 million a year the state would lose because the Seminole compact is based on exclusivity that would vanish. Some early reports also said Rep. Bogdanoff wanted to make big casinos pay 18 percent too. But she said casino companies told her they wouldn’t come to Florida for that.
To clear the way for “destination resort” casinos, backers have to buy off the racinos/pari-mutuels with the promise of additional games and/or a tax cut. But tying legislative approval for big casinos to expansion at racinos and pari-mutuels undermines Sen. Bogdanoff’s stated intent to curb gambling in Florida.
We agree with Sen. Bogdanoff that gambling in Florida is poorly planned and regulated, but neither her original bill nor the revision helps much. Claiming that the bill would control gambling is a tactic to get the resort-casino measure through a House dominated by social conservatives. The original bill targeted South Florida, to mollify theme park-affiliated Central Florida legislators who don’t want to tarnish the state’s Disney/family-friendly “brand.”
That brand is worth protecting. So is the biotech brand Florida is growing, from Scripps and Max Planck in Palm Beach County to Torrey Pines in St. Lucie County to the Burnham Institute in Orlando. Gambling carries high social costs, including crime and addiction, cannibalizes existing tourism businesses and – the clincher – repeatedly has failed to pay off on previous promises of magic money for schools.
Throw out everything except new regulations for Internet cafés. After flirting with “destination resort” casinos and a “gaming commission,” that might seem a big comedown. In fact, it would be a big improvement over legislation that would guarantee an explosion of gambling in Florida.
– Jac Wilder VerSteeg,
for The Palm Beach Post Editorial Board