When Florida lawmakers convene next week for the 2012 session, conventional wisdom says they will be almost totally consumed with protecting their turf — that is, the boundaries of their legislative districts. And, oh yea, they’ll have to figure out how to cut another $2 billion or so from the state budget.
Those issues will dominate their time.
But there also is increasing momentum for lawmakers to address — yet again in Florida — a proposal to open the state to a select number of “destination casinos.”
If they do, the issue in all likelihood will become a really amusing … what? … Fiasco?
To be sure, it will be hypocritical.
It will be another classic example of a Republican-dominated Legislature, alleged “conservatives,” who always rail against too much government regulation, wanting to regulate and constrain an industry and at the same time wanting to control more of your personal behavior.
What makes it even more laughable is the fact “the state,” our own government, operates the largest gambling enterprise in Florida — the Florida lottery, generating $4 billion a year in revenues. And to pile on even more hypocrisy, the state has its own legislatively sanctioned monopoly on the lottery business.
And yet, many of these conservative legislators are fretting about whether to permit a few “destination casinos” to enter the state.
Casinos have been a long-running moral debate in Florida. Florida teemed with gambling houses and bolita operations (a type of lottery) in the 1920s and 1930s, even into the 1940s. Miami and Tampa were the state’s centers of chance.
But the do-gooders who were convinced gambling would lead to social destruction rose up and year by year put stricter controls on gambling. Prior to becoming governor, state Rep. LeRoy Collins led the fight in 1937 to shutter all slot machines in the state.
By the 1960s, all of the state’s casinos were gone — outlawed, and what remained was tightly controlled betting at horse and dog tracks and jai-alai frontons and on cruise ships.
In the mid-1970s, though, pro-casino groups resurfaced. They wanted voter approval in a statewide referendum to create a 16-mile casino alley stretching from Dade to Broward counties.
But longtime Floridians will remember a strong coalition of opposition rallied against the measure. Gov. Reubin Askew, entertainer Anita Bryant and her Christian followers, business interests led by the Miami Herald’s CEO, Alvah Chapman, and Walt Disney World and cruise-ship operators combined forces and money to defeat the 1978 referendum.
Subsequent efforts to legalize casinos in 1986 and 1994 ended up the same way.
And now, once again, the same groups that have always had the most to lose to increased competition are at the forefront of defeating this year’s efforts for the destination casinos. Opponents include Walt Disney World, the Florida Chamber of Commerce, Miami Heat owner and Carnival Cruise Lines CEO Micky Arison, Fontainebleau Miami Beach owner Jeff Soffer and former Gov. and U.S. Sen. Bob Graham.
The arguments are always the same: Casinos will turn Florida into a social cesspool of gambling addicts that will breed even more crime, drugs and detritus than Florida already has. What’s more, the argument goes, the jobs that come with new casinos will be low-paying jobs that Florida’s business and policy elites say we don’t want.
It’s all too funny.
Other side of the dice
But as with most controversies, there are two sides. Let’s take the “social cesspool” threat first. Go back to 1999, and in a Cato Institute report on “Gambling America,” author Guy Calvert wrote:
“People who gamble in casinos are not crazed, welfare-dependent casino desperados; they are (by contrast with lottery players) in many respects better off than the average American.
“A recent industry study found that while the median age of casino players is similar to that of the U.S. population (about 48 years), they have more schooling — they are more likely to have done some college and more likely also to have graduated from college. Moreover, the average household income of casino players is 28% higher than that of the U.S. population.”
Calvert went on to write “the behavioral portrait of a gambler is striking. An earlier Federal Gambling Commission report declared that gamblers ‘watch somewhat less television than nongamblers, read more newspapers and magazines and read about as many books.”
The commission report further said, “Gamblers devote more time to opera, lectures, museums, nightclubs, dancing, movies, theater and active sports. They also socialize more with friends and relatives and participate more in community activities.”
Does gambling breed crime?
When Calvert researched whether casinos increased crime levels in Atlantic City, he found the answer was no.
“At a more fundamental level, there is no evidence that gamblers are any more likely than nongamblers to forsake responsibility. Indeed, one Swedish study found no relationship between gambling and crime, marital instability or the degree of participation in community activities. In another survey, the economist Reuven Brenner of McGill University noted that there is ‘little evidence to support the view that the majority of gamblers squander their money recklessly, whether it is money spent on stakes or money earned from winnings.’”
Special interests at work
As these issues often do, they revolve around special interests — legislators and social do-gooders who think they know what is best for us and businesses that want protected turf.
The do-gooder lawmakers believe individuals cannot be trusted to make decisions and face the consequences when those decisions turn out badly. So they want to protect us from ourselves.
But that thinking has gotten us exactly where we are today and where all of these Republican legislators say they don’t wnt to go — with the state regulating every behavior in our lives (salt, sugar, alcohol, tobacco, meat, saturated fats, etc.). What makes it right for them to dictate our values, to say how much and where we can gamble?
What makes it right for them to decide who gets to operate gambling casinos? It makes no sense to allow Seminole Indians to monopolize the casino gaming industry and makes absolutely no sense to allow “the state” to be the sole operator of the lottery.
Ever since casinos were banned, over the subsequent 50 years, Florida has moved bit by bit toward the way it used to be with full-blown casinos. The camel’s nose has pushed further and further into the tent — with at least two legs and a hump now in the tent as well.
Many Floridians would gasp in horror at the idea of an open, laissez-faire market for casino operators and developers. Walt Disney World cringes at the idea of turning the world’s largest family vacation destination into an adult-entertainment casino center.
But why not open the gates? Let the market determine what works. Balance and equilibrium eventually will prevail. Consumers will benefit from the competition, and state and local government coffers will grow.
Frankly, we’re not much for casinos, slot machines, lotteries, horse and dog tracks, jai-alai or bingo. But that’s a choice, and we should be able to make that choice.
As Calvert said in his closing on gambling in America: “Philosopher John Stuart Mill famously declared, ‘Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign.’ To depart from that standard is to put at risk our inheritance, the tradition of individual liberty upon which America was founded. And that would indeed be a reckless gamble.”
Over the next 90 days, we shall see, we shall see whether lawmakers are true to their alleged principles or typical legislative hypocrites. What do you bet?
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