Florida Casino Supporters, Opponents Debate

At a Florida Forward forum in Orlando, Geoff Freeman, president of the American Gaming Association, said "mistruths are being told" about the casino industry, while John Sowinski, president of NoCasinos.org, argued, "good reform bills are held hostage by the advocates of the big casinos."

On the eve of the start of the Florida legislative session, the Orlando Sentinel recently sponsored a Florida Forward forum regarding casino gambling and both sides presented their views of the issue. Casino gambling is on legislators’ and others’ minds since the five-year compact with the Seminole Tribe of Florida will expires in July. It grants the tribe exclusive rights to offer blackjack and other card games at its seven tribal-land casinos, in exchange for more than $130 million in annual fees.

Depending on the terms of a renegotiated contract, competition could expand, with Las Vegas Sands Corporation and the Genting Group of Malaysia hoping to develop destination casinos in South Florida.

Representing the pro-casino side, Geoff Freeman, president of the American Gaming Association, said, “I’m not here today to tell you that Orlando should have casinos or that Florida should have more than what currently exist. I’m here because of the mistruths that are being told. The casino industry supports 2 million jobs. We’re one part of what should be a multifaceted development strategy.” Freeman noted that many new casinos have helped their host city’s economy, such as in Baltimore and Ohio, and could serve as role models for Florida gambling expansion.

Freeman added, “Today 87 percent say gambling is acceptable for them, their friends or others. Society has changed, it’s not the same as 10, 20, 40 years ago. There’s no reason to think that that’s not going to continue to grow. One thing is you go into the communities where gaming exists. The greatest champions are the mayors, the police chiefs, and the city managers. They’re seeing the benefits firsthand. One of the great ironies is the voices are loudest in the communities where casinos don’t exist.”

On the opposing side, John Sowinski, president of NoCasinos.org, said, “Gambling feeds off an economy that’s already in place and the social costs are very high and have to be borne by society and taxpayers.” Sowinski added many new casinos have harmed communities by taking dollars away from existing restaurants, hotels and attractions. He used Atlantic City as an example, to which Freeman countered, referring to the Seminole Tribe’s successful operation, “In Tampa, crime is down 63 percent, tourism is up 25 percent. Why are we looking several thousand miles away when we have a positive story here to share?”

Sowinski came back with, “Pull up Google maps and look around the Seminole casinos. Nothing. It’s pretty much an economic wasteland. There’s a pawn shop, a gas station and a pizza shop. Then look at any major tourist destination in Orlando.” He added, “The thing that’s most insidious in Tallahassee is the good reform bills are held hostage by the advocates of the big casinos.”

Mark Wilson, president of the Florida Chamber of Commerce, also opposes casino expansion. He said, “We’re approaching 100 million visitors a year, 60 million of which visit Orlando. Twenty million people live here in Florida. The casino industry is in big trouble and they need Florida. The casinos are smart. They want to be here. They want to be where the visitors are.”

In response to a comment that fighting destination casinos goes against the chamber’s free-enterprise philosophy, Wilson stated, “My top job is to make sure we have regulations and laws and taxes and an education system that protects Florida’s future. What the industry has acknowledged is that it’s a bad idea. The best way to champion free enterprise is to set up a system where everybody can thrive.”

Isadore Havenick, vice president at Magic City Casino in Miami, spoke on behalf of the state’s eight parimutuel betting tracks, all in South Florida, that currently operate limited-game casinos but want to expand. Havenick said he’s all for “a free market economy, the same products, the same tax rate, the same regulation as those who conduct the same business as us. That’s all the parimutuel industry has ever asked for. We don’t care who’s here as long as we get to compete the same way.”

He said parimutuels “are the highest taxed business in the state of Florida. Thirty-five percent is for the slots and after local taxes it’s 42 to 54 percent. Businesses can’t grow in an environment like that. In a proper business model, we would be able to achieve it but the state has hampered our ability to run our business.” Havenick is not optimistic about the future for pari-mutuels, noting, “I expect we’ll be having the same conversation next year and the year after and the year after. My kid is one and I’d like to not be discussing this when he starts college.”

Wilson agreed the casino issue is far from being solved. He said, “There are hundreds of lobbyists and advocates on all 40 sides of this issue. The ingredients are there to not be resolved soon.”

Sowinski seemed to be the only one with a positive outlook. He said, “My sense is we like our chances to see no expansion. The big question is what happens with the compact. It could be renewed, not be renewed and table games go away or it could be used as an excuse to expand gambling and we’re going to fight like heck that number three doesn’t happen.”