Don’t look for gambling to be a hot topic in Florida’s race for governor.
Charlie Crist visited the SunSentinel’s Editorial Board on Tuesday, and our staff was able to squeeze in a question or two about gambling.
Crist said about the same thing Gov. Rick Scott says, and I really don’t blame either one for not picking a side in parimutuels-vs.-Seminoles-vs.-Disney-vs. destination casinos.
“What’s going to happen going forward, I don’t know,” Crist said Tuesday. When pressed, he added, “My answer isn’t squishy, it’s the truth.”
Scott has been as neutral as you could get with his opinions about gambling in the state, often saying “I haven’t made up my mind yet” when asked about gambling expansion.
“We are currently reviewing all the gaming issues facing Florida and look forward to discussing these issues in more detail in the days and months ahead,” was a standard response from the governor’s communications director, Melissa Sellers.
So it's been a passive era for a governor in Florida, right? Well, it got me to thinking... and actually, Scott has had plenty of gambling situations to ponder since 2010:
He probably wishes he had moved faster to stop Internet cafés. The unregulated industry grew unchecked across the state, raking in up to $1 billion, although Scott told our editorial board in May 2012 they needed to be banned. But then his Lt. Gov. Jennifer Carroll had to step down March 11, 2013, after being questioned about consulting work she did for a Jacksonville non-profit. That turned out to be Allied Veterans of the World, which ran dozens of Internet gambling cafes throughout the state. Soon after, the Florida legislature passed laws banning Internet cafes and crippling a related venture, senior arcades. And Scott went for quite a spell without a lieutenant governor.
Scott also got worked into a corner in regard to destination casinos. Scott pledged to add 800,000 jobs in Florida if he were elected, and one admittedly optimistic estimate said 100,000 could have come had three $1 billion structures came to the state. But the pushback from the Seminole Tribe of Florida, pari-mutuels, the theme park industry and those philosophically opposed to gambling have proven to be too great. So that plane ride he took out to Vegas to visit Sands owner Sheldon Adelson two weeks after being elected in November 2010 didn’t yield much results. And he has been unable to follow through on what his Regulatory Reform Transition team published after his election, including one listing for “eliminating mandatory gaming activities that are unprofitable for an additional form of gambling.” That would have meant dog tracks, for example, could have eliminated the required dog racing and just offer slots and poker. The issue for Scott then became either a.) push destination casinos through to support his jobs pledge or b.) back off and leave the hodge-podge of laws and inconsistencies to fester or c.) try to clean up what he could, which proved to be too heavy of a lift in the legislature.
He has the advantage of not being beholden to those morally opposed to gambling. Scott won the Republican nomination on his own dime, edging out party favorite Bill McCollum. Not being a traditional Republican meant Scott didn’t have to pay back voters who are the most opposed to gambling. As he said from the start, he’s all about business.
Politics can mess up the Division of Pari-Mutuel Wagering. Under his first chief of staff, Steve MacNamara, the governor’s office essentially fired Milt Champion at the Florida Division of Pari-Mutuel wagering, then his replacement declared rodeo-style barrel racing a pari-mutuel venture. That decision was on behalf of Gretna Racing, which is partially owned by Marc Dunbar, a former legal associate of MacNamara’s. Scott’s office has been trying to unravel the barrel racing mess ever since. He’ll likely skate politically on this one, because the topic is so complicated no critic could put it into a sound bite. And does anybody outside of the horse industry down here care about barrel racing in the opposite corner of the state?
He probably wishes his party had elected a smarter attorney general. In December 2011, Attorney General Pam Bondi called an anti-gambling press conference against a destination casino bill. She said she spoke “personally to many law enforcement officers and in Hillsborough County, many of the last drug trafficking cases that they made, the money was laundered through the casino.” When pressed to name which casino, she said it was the Hard Rock in Tampa. But the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office said: “Our office has not conducted any investigation involving money laundering at casinos, nor do we have any official information that this type of criminal activity is/has occurred in Hillsborough County.” Bondi later said she did not speak to “many” officers and that her information came from only one person -- at a charity function. The Seminoles, who have never been investigated for such a thing, nor have they had any patrons accused, were understandably outraged, with Tribal Council Chair James Billie penning an editorial saying “It is disturbing to us for such a serious charge to come out of nowhere through the mouths of such high-ranking leadership as the Cabinet of the State of Florida without any regard to the high potential for damaging the Tribe's reputation and the reputation of its businesses.” Scott is fortunate, though, that this reflects more on Bondi, who was elected, than him.
The world has changed since Crist negotiated the compact. In 2010, the Seminole Tribe of Florida began offering blackjack after then-Gov. Crist negotiated a compact between the Seminole and the state that brought $1 billion over five years. The Seminoles had been stonewalled for 16 years under prior governors Lawton Chiles and Jeb Bush, and at a celebration tribal officers noted that Crist was “a true friend to the tribe.” But since then, destination casinos have made a push to build here, adding one more heavyweight pulling in this multi-sided tug-of-war.