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Weed yes, gambling no?

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There is always great cynical amusement — and certainly exasperating frustrations — when Florida's legislators gather for their annual spring fling. You never know what dumb surprises are going to end up becoming law.

If only all lawmakers would follow Naples Sen. Garrett Richter. He says his first priority is: “Do no harm.”

But surely, some of Richter's colleagues and supporters may be wondering why he is the lead lawmaker on three bills that are part of a package that, if approved, could expand gambling in Florida — including the opening of mega-casino resorts, one each in Miami-Dade and Broward counties.

One reason Richter is shepherding this is the fact that he is chairman of the Senate Gaming Committee. And as such that puts him in the center of the ring to try to craft and steer legislation that would bring Florida's patchwork gambling laws into a comprehensive set of rules.

And that process has led Richter's committee to where it will be Thursday, March 3, when it begins consideration of Senate Bills 7050, 7052 and 7054:
• SB 7050: It would create a new section of the constitution requiring that any expansion of gambling be authorized by a constitutional amendment or by a legislative act, either of which would require voter approval.
• SB 7052: This is the monster bill, more than 400 pages, creating a new Department of Gaming Control and a Gaming Control Board that would provide oversight for all gambling in the state.
One of the most crucial pieces of this bill is, to allow casinos in South Florida, the governor would be required to renegotiate the state's “compact” with the Seminole Indian tribe. That compact gives the Seminoles a nice monopoly on casino gambling in Florida, to the point its Hard Rock casino in Tampa is one of the most profitable casinos in North America.
• SB 7054: It would exempt the Gaming Department from public records laws in the licensing and application process of gaming companies.
For the past three decades, permitting full-scale gambling in Florida has been as controversial as legalizing marijuana is today. In the mid-1980s, business interests squelched a popular and aggressive effort to bring back casino gambling.

Yes, “bring back.” Florida since the late 1890s had been a thriving destination of legal and illegal gambling — in the lavish hotels of Henry Flagler and Henry Plant, and later in the Roaring '20s in South Florida and Sarasota.

In 1959, then Gov. Leroy Collins argued against gambling in a three-page article in Parade magazine, calling it “poison.” “It kills more business than it generates,” he wrote. “It encourages public corruption and ... Worst of all, it saps moral strength and character.”

Those same warnings continue today. The Florida Chamber of Commerce, beacon of free enterprise, has been one of the most vocal opponents of expanding casinos.

“Las Vegas-style casinos ... bring economic devolution — a decline in Florida's quality of life,” Greg Blose wrote for the chamber last December. “How, during a time of such positive growth in Florida, could we justify the expansion of an industry that has an established history of cannibalizing local businesses and offering little by way of sustainable job growth?”

To one extent, you can understand the chamber. One of its long-time supporters and members, Walt Disney World, is a staunch opponent of casinos, and for obvious reasons — competition, the loss of convention business. But there are many other businesses as well that oppose gambling primarily on grounds of morality and its negative social effects. They're right — it's bad.

To another extent, though, how is gambling any different than, say, selling tobacco or booze? The social effects and costs of those can be and are damaging as well. But we allow those businesses, and we give consumers the choice — they can drink or not drink, they can smoke or not smoke.

What's more, Florida is already rife with gambling. The State itself, for goodness sake, is one of the biggest pushers of gambling — with its $4.4 billion (annual revenues) lottery business. As one lawmaker told us, “We've had the lottery, parimutuels and Hard Rock for years, and we have 19 million people and are still growing. I haven't seen Florida collapse because of gambling.”

While some people, no doubt, will say Sen. Richter and his committee are violating his motto of “do no harm” with the gambling bills, they are doing their jobs. It's not the role of the state to decide what is moral. Every individual has a rational mind to make that choice. Floridians should have more choices to roll the dice.


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