TALLAHASSEE — It's been seven years since Florida voters opened the door a little farther to casino gambling in what supporters back then said was a measured, highly controlled entry into an industry that at the time was under the monopolistic control of American Indian tribes.
By the slimmest of margins, Florida voters in 2004 gave their Miami-Dade and Broward County counterparts the nod to decide whether gambling was right for them. The South Florida restriction was needed because the allure of casino revenues faded precipitously as one traveled north in the culturally diverse state. Previous statewide referenda had been soundly defeated.
South Florida, rich in Latin American and northeastern U.S. influences, was more amendable to allowing slots and other games of chance. Traveling up the peninsula, the mood changed quickly as more socially conservative voters in Central Florida mingled with liberal anti-gambling factions wary of the underside of casino's revenue boosts.
The limited amendment also was needed because times were good. With Florida feeding at the table of incredible (and unsustainable) growth, neither lawmakers nor taxpayers were too concerned about gambling revenues.
The feast is over, at least for now, and gambling backers have returned with another proposal that will likely be among the most contested issues of the 2012 legislative session.
This week, political players from around the state will convene in Fort Lauderdale to take a look at the latest attempt to expand gambling in the state as the Fort Lauderdale Chamber of Commerce hosts a debate on efforts to bring "destination resort" gambling to the Land of the Mouse.
The forum will include Orlando attorney John Stemberger, president of the Florida Family Policy Council, which opposes efforts to expand gaming in the state. Other panelists include Sen. Ellyn Bogdanoff, R-Fort Lauderdale, the sponsor of the casino bill; Dan Adkins, president of the Mardi Gras Casino; Bob Wyre, general manager of Isle Casino and Racing; and Nick Iarossi, lobbyist for Las Vegas Sands, one of a handful of investors interested in building a resort gambling development in South Florida.
Backers of such efforts say the economic rewards are immense and only marginally related to gambling itself. Multi-billion developments (current legislation calls for a minimum $2 billion investment) with hotels, shops, golf courses and yes, slots and blackjack tables, will bring with them construction jobs followed by tourism-related employment.
Critics are wary of the revenue projections and say the economic impact of such resorts will be localized and highly selective. Compared to the social costs associated with gambling, the proposition is not the jackpot that backers extol.
On Friday, the revenue estimating conference, a group of financial analysts from the Legislature and the governor's office, is scheduled to meet to divine the state's take if proposed legislation is enacted to allow casinos in South Florida or, theoretically, in counties where voters say it's OK.
The forecast will be complicated by a number of factors, including the fate of the current gambling compact with the Seminole tribe, which finally struck a deal with the state in 2010 to pay the state for exclusive gaming rights. The compact makes the deal null and void if the tribe's exclusivity is breached.
Expect a high-stakes effort from all sides in the months ahead as so many interest groups from anti-gambling interests to existing pari-mutuels have skin in this game.