TALLAHASSEE, Fla. Making sun-soaked Florida a new rival to Las Vegas may not be the big boon to the state's economy that backers of new casinos have been promising.
A much-anticipated study on gambling paid by the Republican-controlled state Legislature concludes that bringing large casinos to the state would have only a "moderately positive impact" on the economy.
The report isn't yet final, but the findings released this week could aid critics who contend that state legislators are considering allowing casinos so they can receive large campaign donations from those in the gaming industry.
A political committee aiding Republican Gov. Rick Scott's re-election campaign in September received a $500,000 check from the Seminole Tribe of Florida.
"The voters are not clamoring for casinos in this state," said John Sowinski, president of No Casinos, and who added that lawmakers are only exploring the issue because the gambling industry is "throwing their money around."
The two leaders of the Legislature earlier this year agreed to spend nearly $400,000 to have New Jersey-based Spectrum Gaming Group conduct a comprehensive study of gambling. The idea was to give legislators detailed information on what effect changing state law would have on a state that already has a heavy mix of gambling, but still doesn't have the big, sprawling casinos seen on the Las Vegas strip or in new gambling hotspots in Asia.
The decision to do the study came a year after the Legislature rejected a bill to bring large resorts to South Florida that backers contended would bolster the state's tourism industry.
The draft report released this week is nearly 500 pages long and examines all sorts of different scenarios, including keeping the gambling landscape as it is or allowing the state's dog and race tracks to add slot machines. It concludes some types of expansion could add jobs without cutting into the economic activity of other parts of the state's leisure industries.
But the main conclusion is that while bringing casinos will boost the economies of the counties in which they are located, it will not create a dramatic boon for the rest of the state.
Sen. Garrett Richter, R-Naples, and chairman of a Senate committee studying gambling, said the findings from the report should not be seen as a reason for the Legislature to end its debate over what kind of gambling should be allowed.
"The report is strictly a resource," said Richter. "It should not serve to close down any future discussions."
Richter's committee is going to hold public hearings across the state later this month before it looks at what steps, if any, the state could take to alter its arcane and confusing gambling laws.
Florida does have some restrictions on gambling and voters in the past have rejected constitutional amendments to bring casinos into the state. But dog tracks and horse tracks in South Florida have been allowed to install slot machines.
Back in 2010 the state approved a deal with the Seminoles that called for the tribe to pay the state about $1.2 billion over a five-year period. That deal gave the Seminoles exclusive rights to have blackjack and other table games at three Broward County casinos and others in Immokalee and Tampa. But some of those rights expire in 2015 and the tribe wants to work out a deal to keep in place what they have.
"The Seminole Tribe worked for two decades to secure a gaming compact with the State of Florida that provided a more stable future for the Tribe and its members and allowed for significant sharing of gaming revenue with the state," said Gary Bitner, a spokesman for the Seminoles. "The Tribe wants to maintain that steady, stable course through 2015 and beyond."
The Seminoles won't be alone in trying to affect the outcome of any gambling legislation. So will the state's dog track and horse track owners as well as companies such as Disney, which are opposed to bringing in new casinos.
Sen. Bill Galvano, R-Bradenton, who helped negotiate the current deal with the Seminoles, said there is a possibility that lawmakers could end up not being able to reach a deal at the end of the 2014 session.
"I don't believe we need to do something just for the sake of doing it," Galvano said.
But Rep. Jim Waldman, D-Coconut Creek, and a member of the House Select Committee on Gaming, said it wouldn't make any sense for legislators to spend time and money on gambling without passing a bill.
"It would seem pretty silly for the House and Senate to set up these select committee and work on it for two years to just punt the issue," Waldman said.