Where to draw the line on gaming, money

By Steve Huettel. Times Staff Writer
Published February 24, 2008

In a tight budget year, gambling interests are tripping over each other with offers of free money for Florida.

Tracks are angling for video slot machines to offset steady declines in dog and horse race betting. They say the state would reap more than $300-million annually in three years. The Seminole Tribe of Florida will share at least $100-million this year under a disputed deal that sanctions Las Vegas-style slots, blackjack and baccarat at seven casinos. By 2012, officials say, the payout will likely quadruple.

The state's own gambling operation, the Florida Lottery, has launched its biggest single-year expansion. A new twist on Lotto, a second daily Cash 3 and Play 4 drawing, scratch-off game vending machines and more advertising will generate an extra $248-million next year, the agency estimates.

"This is the year that the lottery perhaps can be part of the solution," says lottery director Leo DiBenigno.

Even with a $2-billion budget hole to fill, the offers sparked a wide-ranging debate over where to draw the line on gambling in Florida.

The spat pits Republican Gov. Charlie Crist, who signed the Seminole compact and endorses more and bigger lottery games, against two top GOP leaders, House Speaker Marco Rubio, R-West Miami, and Attorney General Bill McCollum.

Rubio sued Crist in November, charging the governor overstepped his authority signing the Seminole compact without legislative approval. A ruling by the state Supreme Court ispending.

Crist pledged as a candidate in 2006 not to expand gambling. But with the ink still wet on the compact, he voiced a laissez-faire attitude. "If people don't like gambling, they shouldn't go," he told reporters.

Unlike Las Vegas casinos that support the huge tourist industry, says Rubio, Florida's gambling caters almost exclusively to locals. In effect, he says, the entertainment dollar simply shifts from one business to another.

"The $30 scratch-off ticket is $30 that used to be spent at a restaurant or movie theater," says Rubio. "It's not creating jobs."

The boss of the Seminole casinos says the tribe's deal with the state is all about economic development. And a big pile of cash for the state. Running legal games of blackjack and baccarat will turn facilities like Tampa's Seminole Hard Rock Casino into a destination for gamblers "nationally and internationally," says Jim Allen, CEO of Seminole Gaming.

The Interior Department, which regulates Indian gambling, threatened to grant the tribe Las Vegas-style slots, cutting Florida out of any gambling revenue. Crist said that left him no choice.

Crist argues the deal keeps gambling from spreading by limiting new games to the seven existing Seminole casinos.

Florida's greyhound and horse tracks, in decline for two decades, say the Seminole deal could push them over the brink. Poker games helped. But track owners see fewer gamblers spending a leisurely day handicapping the ponies and puppies. Gamblers, especially younger ones, go for the flash and instant gratification of slot machines.

For the second year, state Sen. Dennis Jones, R-Seminole, is sponsoring legislation to allow video slot machines at 19 race tracks in Florida that don't have Vegas-style slots. The Class II machines are bingo games where players compete against each other instead of the house. The state would regulate them and receive 35 percent of revenues.

Meanwhile, the Florida Lottery is putting the pedal to metal. One controversial change would bring back scratch-off ticket vending machines banned in 2002. The first 1,000 will go into existing locations. But DiBenigno's goal is to enlist big retailers that aren't set up for counter sales. Think Wal-Mart and Walgreen's.

House conservatives aren't pleased. "We spend millions of dollars convincing working-class people they can become a millionaire," says Rubio.

A state study confirmed that poor people spend more on the lottery. In 2001, players earning under $15,000 a year spent $298 on lottery games - 2 percent of their income. Those earning over $70,000 a year spent $245 or less than half of 1 percent.

Steve Huettel can be reached athuettel@sptimes.com or 813 226-3384.