As most of you know, casinos are illegal in Florida.
And except for the dozen or so casinos we have up and running — as well as the dog tracks, horse tracks, poker rooms, jai alai frontons, cruises to nowhere and government-run lottery, we are quite serious in this state about our opposition to big-time gambling.
Now, however, there's a bill in Tallahassee that calls for massive casino resorts in five different parts of the state.
It's a whopper of an 82-page bill backed by Republicans in powerful positions. But if you had to summarize all those pages in just one sentence, it'd say: "Sure, casinos are illegal … except for certain places … in every corner of the state … where we want really, really big ones."
But before politicians push all-in, I thought I'd break this debate down into bite-size bits to help you see what's at stake. And just for fun, I thought I'd sprinkle in some pieces of well-worn gambling advice for all you bettors out there.
The proposal: The basic idea is to welcome "destination resorts" to Florida. "Destination resort" basically means really big with at least 500,000 square feet of convention and meeting space. Senate Bill 1708 would allow one of these really big casinos in each of five regions around Florida. Orlando's region goes east to Volusia and up north past Jacksonville. But casinos could only go where local voters invite them — which would still rule out much of Florida, if past votes are any indication anyway.
Gambling tip No. 1: If you look around the poker table and can't spot the sucker, you're it.
The stakes: They're massive — both for taxpayers and the casino execs. Senate sponsor Dennis Jones, R-Seminole, said Thursday that the plan could easily provide more than a billion dollars a year in tax revenues, in addition to tens of thousands of jobs. But whatever the public would get, the casino companies would get tons more. Las Vegas Sands is already boasting of plans to invest $2 billion in a single resort in Miami.
Gambling tip No. 2: Looking to play a machine where you're guaranteed not to lose? Try the ones near the cashier … the ones marked "Bill Changer."
The flip flop: You might be wondering why companies like Sands would be talking so confidently about coming to Florida. After all, it was only a few months ago that then-candidate Rick Scott promised GOP primary voters that he would not allow a gambling expansion. Not "of any kind," Scott vowed to the Florida Baptist Witness. But then Scott got elected — and needed the 700,000 new jobs he promised more than he needed conservative Christian voters. So, two weeks after he was elected governor, the St. Petersburg Times reported that Scott flew to Vegas to meet with the CEO of the Sands corporation and later said he'd look at gambling "going forward." After he took heat for that, Scott said he'd "not taken any position."
Gambling tip No. 3: If you're ever in a casino during an earthquake, run for the keno lounge … nothing ever gets hit there.
The hypocrisy: One of the bigger scams in Florida politics is the way some Republican politicians claim to oppose gambling — even as they suck up gambling money like piglets on a swollen momma sow for their own campaigns. A few years ago, the Sentinel actually counted each and every donation to the Republican Party of Florida and found that nearly one out of every five dollars came from casinos and gambling interests. And the current bills are being championed by Republicans like Jones in the Senate and Erik Fresen of Miami in the House.
Gambling tip No. 4: Never gamble with rent money, or you'll end up sleeping on the park bench.
What makes sense: Communities that don't want gambling shouldn't be forced to have it. But places that do should have that option. Personally, I enjoy visiting casinos — but I don't want one in my back yard. If I did, I would've moved to Vegas. There are, after all, obvious quality-of-life downsides when casinos come to town. That's why lawmakers should tread slowly. They should have a well-thought-out discussion about where we really want gambling — and where we don't. And then we should stick to it. Otherwise, we are left with our current policy of pretending like gambling is outlawed, even as more of it creeps across the state.
Final gambling tip: Luck never gives. It only lends.
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