Phil Lewis: Gambling will expand — bet on it!

Phil Lewis
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Gambling interests — and there are lots of them these days in Florida, including Lee and Collier counties — are waiting to see who blinks first.

Playing the game are the governor, the state Legislature and the Seminole Tribe of Florida. Viewing the game and trying to help where they can are a whole host of parties, ranging from attorneys, racehorse breeders and chambers of commerce.

Billions of dollars are at stake in what will be the next step in the state’s love-hate relationship with gaming, which is the preferred term if you are in the gaming industry or you want to be.

Here’s a recap:

The governor signed an agreement with the Seminoles in 2007 to allow blackjack and Vegas-style slot machines in their casinos. State legislators who oppose gambling in general or who support non-Indian gaming interests protested, saying the governor had no authority to sign the agreement without legislative approval. The Florida Supreme Court agreed and said the agreement is no good. Federal authorities continue to say the state is obligated to sign an agreement with the Seminoles or lose its ability to regulate the Indian casinos, meaning the gambling will continue, but the state won’t get any tax money.

It can be quite confusing. The one thing that’s clear is Florida is continuing down the road to casino gambling, not just on Indian reservations, but throughout the state. Think Nevada, or at least Mississippi, in the not-too-distant future.

Here’s why:

The two major players in the growth of gambling in Florida — pari-mutuel race tracks and Indian tribes — have used the law and promise of sharing money to eke out victories over the past 30 years to expand.

The tracks started back in the 1920s with dog, thoroughbred and harness racing. The tribes started with bingo in the 1980s.

Each time one entity has won legal authority to expand, the other side has pounced to do the same. They’ve been hop-scotching ever since.

Bingo cards gave way to bingo-type slot machines. Racing venues in Broward and Miami-Dade counties got local voter approval to add slot machines in return, but not the bingo-type, the Vegas-type. The Seminoles noted that federal law gives them the right to offer the same type of slot machines — and blackjack to boot. The pari-mutuel tracks say this is going to put them out of business and they want to be allowed to have blackjack as well.

Add in the fact that the economy stinks, growth has slowed and government — state and local — is thirsting for new tax revenues and the expansion of casino gambling is inevitable.

That will make the folks who own the dog track in Bonita Springs happy — and wealthy. There no doubt are plans on the drawing board to turn it into a racino (combination race track and casino) with a hotel and night clubs.

It also won’t hurt the casino in Immokalee, which has added jobs and raked in money since opening for blackjack a few months back.

Out in the cold will be those who oppose gambling on moral and/or social grounds.

Phil Lewis is editor of the Daily News; his e-mail address is plewis@naplesnews.com.

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