Florida legislators consider state's gambling future

FILE - This Oct. 2, 2012 file photo, casino industry professionals test the newest slot machines on display at the Global Gaming Expo in Las Vegas. A state Senate panel spent nearly three hours on Monday, Oct. 7, 2013 hearing from the authors of a $400,000 study on the potential impacts of allowing more gambling in the state. (AP Photo)

FILE - This Oct. 2, 2012 file photo, casino industry professionals test the newest slot machines on display at the Global Gaming Expo in Las Vegas. A state Senate panel spent nearly three hours on Monday, Oct. 7, 2013 hearing from the authors of a $400,000 study on the potential impacts of allowing more gambling in the state. (AP Photo)

TALLAHASSEE — Florida's gambling future could be as simple as this: Nearly every Floridian could soon be within a two-hour drive of a casino that contains slot machines.

That was just one of the many scenarios consultants hired by state legislators said could happen, depending on what steps legislators take in the next few months.

It was in early 2012 that the Republican-controlled Legislature shot down a bill to allow major resort casinos in South Florida. But now lawmakers are seriously considering changing the state's gambling laws — including whether to allow additional casinos and whether to permit slot machines at existing dog and horse tracks.

A state Senate panel spent nearly three hours on Monday hearing from the authors of a $400,000 study on the potential impacts of allowing more gambling in the state.

That study — which is still being finalized — concluded adding casinos would likely have a moderate impact on the state's economy and most money spent in the casinos would come from Floridians. The study pointed out that there is already a lot of gambling already underway in the Sunshine State.

Yet the same legislators who authorized spending money on the study expressed skepticism about some of the initial findings.

Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, pointed out how New Jersey-based Spectrum Gaming Group had conducted a study on behalf of Malaysia-based Genting Group that predicted a doubling of gambling revenue in the state by just adding three South Florida casinos. Genting had also contended that the casinos could create as many as 100,000 extra jobs.

Latvala noted that the report done for legislators predicted a much smaller growth in jobs — and not as much extra gambling revenue even though the economy is better now than it was in 2011.

"The entire credibility of this report hinges on how you possibly justify the differences," Latvala said.

Michael Pollock, managing director of Spectrum, pointed out that his company never came up with the 100,000 jobs figure. But he said the initial estimates that adding three casinos could bring in an additional $7 billion in Florida was based on Genting's marketing plan that called for flying gamblers in from Asia and marketing in South America.

The report presented to legislators suggested that if they embraced a "wide open" approach that state could generate $5.4 billion overall in gambling revenue from six new major casinos in south Florida, Tampa, Orlando and Jacksonville as well as allowing slot machines at every one of the state's dog and horse tracks. If legislators approved a change this sweeping Florida would have more casinos than all but five other states in the nation.

Yet the study authors did caution that building new casinos in Florida would not mean that the state would suddenly rival Las Vegas and attract large additional throngs of tourists.

Sen. Gwen Margolis, D-Aventura, said that Florida may be better served by just giving additional types of gambling to the Seminole Tribe of Florida.

The tribe is paying the state $1.2 billion over a five-year period as part of a deal that gave the Seminoles exclusive rights to have blackjack and other table games at three Broward County casinos and others in Immokalee and Tampa. But that deal expires in 2015.

"If you gave them an opportunity to do a few more things we wouldn't have to sit around and worry about casinos in our backyard," Margolis said.

Sen. John Thrasher said the initial findings did not convince him that legislators should open the door to more casinos.

"I haven't heard a compelling reason from my perspective to think I want to vote to expand gambling," said Thrasher, R-St. Augustine and one of the top Republicans in the Senate.

Follow Gary Fineout on Twitter: http://twitter.com/fineout

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